The recent furore over continued FIFA corruption – which has been an open secret for over 30 years to my personal knowledge, made me reflect on corporate ethics.
It is a question that comes up regularly in our programs on global working and leadership. I once worked in the Czech Republic in the early days after the fall of communism and, when we went to visit storekeepers, our newly recruited sales people were concerned.
We had given them thorough training on ethics and that we did not pay bribes, but the shopkeepers wanted “incentives” to stock our products. Our salespeople asked “what should we do, we can’t pay them and they won’t stock our products”.
I asked “what would we do in the UK or Germany?” And was told indignantly that we never paid bribes? I asked “So, UK and German storekeepers always display new products and suppliers and give you shelf space for free?” The answer was “oh no, they often charge shelf listing fees or require sales incentives to get them to make a change”.
So what is the difference? We commonly pay incentives, but not bribes?
Part of the answer lies in transparency, if we would not do it in public; we should not do it in private?. Part is in definitions, if you are a US Or UK multinational you are bound by the definitions of your home country’s legislation, wherever you operate.
An exercise I often conduct is to get managers to make 2 lists next to each other. The first is a list of what it is acceptable and ethical for them to accept from a supplier. Most reputable multinationals have very short lists, a pen, a calendar, perhaps a meal if it is reciprocated. What would your organization be happy for you to receive?
I then ask them to list what they routinely offer to their customers as incentives to do business. The list often includes business incentives, meals, prizes and entertainment. Many of the World Cup sponsors will invite their key customers to the World Cup or other major events – trips with flights, accommodation, meals and tickets that are worth many thousands of pounds, sometimes accompanied by their family members.
Now here is my ethical principle. If the lists of what you would accept and provide are the same – then you have an ethics policy. If you would give more than you accept them this is no longer about ethics but about obligation. You are happy for your customers to be beholden to you but unhappy for your people to be beholden to your suppliers.
This may make business and commercial sense, but it’s not ethics!
The major FIFA sponsors now have an import and potentially expensive choice to make; do they have an ethics policy or a commercial policy. Football is a fabulous and lucrative commercial opportunity – but is supporting FIFA worth your ethical soul?