Is it a bribe or a tip?

Apr 21 2010 by David Livermore Print This Article

Most people involved in international work are faced with the dilemma of what to do when an "extra payment" is expected. It might be a police officer pulling you over and offering you the option of "paying in cash now". Or an immigration official suggesting that your paperwork could be processed more quickly for an extra "service fee". Or a shipping port delaying goods until you offer a "tip" for expediting delivery.

The question of whether or not to pay these "bribes" are discussed one way in the class on business ethics ("Of course you shouldn't pay it!") and another way in real life ("That's just the way it is if you want to get anything done").

Meanwhile, most of us work for companies that require us to sign a company policy against foreign bribery of any kind. So not only do these dilemmas put our integrity in question, they make us personally liable.

To add to the challenge, many of the individuals we encounter abroad are paid a low wage with the assumption that small sums of money will be offered from serving individuals like us - in much the same way restaurant servers in many parts of the world are paid less than minimum wage because of the assumption that guests will tip them.

Of course, we're usually served regardless of the tip we leave at the restaurant, but what's the fine line between a bribe and a tip? Many of the individuals looking for a bribe are barely getting by. Is it really such a big deal?

Another question: who's most responsible for the alleged corruption that goes along with bribery. Is it the individuals giving and receiving the bribes? Is it the developing nations or companies that expect bribes as part of compensating personnel? Or is it the developed nations or companies who turn a blind eye or exploit inexpensive manufacturing and employment opportunities as a way to build their enterprise? Everyone is.

I admit I've been in situations where I paid a small "tip" to make things happen. But on the whole, I believe we need to eliminate bribery from our cross-border work. I know. It's a lofty ideal. But we have to move that direction if we're going to truly move toward a better existence together as a global humanity. Here are a few ways to get started:

1. Companies need to own their policies. Companies can't force employees to sign anti-bribery agreements while insisting on the same expediency that would occur if the bribe was paid. Signing your policy makes your employees personally liable, so exercise some creative strategies for ways to get the job done without paying bribes. Tangibly support the commitment you've asked your employees to make.

2. Find a trustworthy agent or broker. It's well worth the time and money to find the right third party to help you work through the localized rules, customs and expectations for moving goods and services, getting trade permits, and dealing with visas in a foreign place. Pay the agents well upfront so you aren't faced with having to "bribe" the third party who is supposed to be helping you avoid "bribing". In the long run, it's well worth taking the time to find the right individual to fill this role.

3. The power of many. I know it's idealistic to think we can get along in international business without using bribery. But small, incremental steps are what it's going to take by all of us. Get buy in from everyone involved. That means senior management, sales, operations, marketing, contractors and suppliers, distributors, and so on. Seek reciprocal agreements from business partners and slowly we can begin to change the tide.

3. Accept that this isn't a perfect world. In a perfect world, there's no such thing as colliding values and ethical dilemmas. But they happen all the time in our world. If for example, I'm in a foreign country and I'm trying to get food to refugees, and the only way to accomplish it is by giving the military a small gift, I'm going to place the highest value upon the expediency of getting food to the people who will otherwise die without it.

So we have to temper our resolve to eradicate bribery by knowing it's going to take awhile and there may be times we need to pursue a higher value than exercising justice with the individual requiring a bribe.

These kinds of dilemmas illustrate why managers need cultural intelligence more than ever. Having the capability to adapt to a diversity of norms and customs while remaining true to your own sense of ideals is put to the test when working internationally. But together, we can make the world a better place for people working near and far.

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About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.