A solid business strategy as the foundation of Anti-Bribery Compliance

Ethical Boardroom was kind enough to ask me to share my thoughts on what management techniques exist for promoting a cost effective FCPA or UK Anti-Bribery program across a global organisation. Clearly, there is no shortage within the compliance community of programs and writings addressing such platforms. Among the debate, you will find significant discussion about the “tone at the top,” what the reporting relationships should be among compliance, legal and financial personnel and extensive deliberation concerning the management of third party relationships. These debates are led by those in the compliance, legal and investigatory communities who have great practical and professional experience to address such concerns. Thus, for those looking at how to specifically implement and structure a compliance program, it is probably best to dive into those discussions, where you will find well-experienced thought leaders, information and recommendations. However, my goal today is to address strategy as the foundation of compliance.

If you are a Board member or C-Suite executive, I ask: Are you willing to take a step back in your business strategy, including sales forecasts in highly corrupt regions, in order to take a step forward in achieving meaningful anti-bribery compliance? In other words, are you willing to unwind sales and marketing practices and hold no sales projection sacrosanct in reviewing corporate strategy?  If so, then you are serious about compliance as something more than “window dressing” to cover over questionable or contradictory business practices. 

If your organisation is doing business in regions with “low integrity” reputations (and there are a number of good indexes to help you identify those), and you are experiencing elevated and consistent growth in year-to-year sales in those territories, then you might want to ask those responsible “How they are getting there?” as opposed to congratulating them for their “great work.” If you are looking at compliance from the Board level perspective, especially if you are on risk, audit or governance committees, hold off on the congratulatory tone when reviewing sales performance and ask “Are our teams confronting corruption in achieving this sales growth?” and “What are we doing to help them confront risk?” Even better, query “How are they achieving this kind of growth in such a corrupt region?”

Where in the discussion is “How are we rolling out our business strategies in high risk regions?”

Compliance is a Strategic Issue

As Philippe Montigny, (Founder and President, Ethic Intelligence) stated in a June 5, 2014 editorial, “Anti-corruption compliance is first and foremost a business issue which must be integrated not only into day-to-day operations, but also into business strategies.” Indeed, and in my experience, there is a lack of focus and concern among board members and corporate executives as to how those on the front line are reconciling an aggressive growth strategy with anti-bribery program.  While it is appropriate to question legal and/or compliance personnel, “What are we doing to manage our third party relationships?” or “How are we structured organisationally to deal with compliance?” or even “Are our sales reps being properly trained?” I ask: where are the tough questions concerning business strategy as the primary foundation of compliance? 

My concern is about what I do not hear.  Where in the discussion is “How are we rolling out our business strategies in high risk regions?” or “How are we incentivising our sales, marketing and business development teams in corrupt territories?” Are you sending a message to your international front line managers, who are the ones confronting bribery, to remain “compliant,” while at the same time highly incentivising them with bonus compensation indexed to personal sales performance? If you are, then you are leaving it to your overseas personnel to figure out “What does management really want, compliance or sales,” as your sales teams can’t deliver compliance while achieving sales targets and bonus. In such a case, compliance and sales growth become zero-sum, they cannot exist together.  

More simply stated, when the “official” corporate message as well as training focuses on the “means” of compliance, but incentive compensation plans and sales forecasts speak to the “ends” of winning above all else, then compliance becomes “bonus prevention.” No level of spending on third party management, reshuffling of the organizational chart, or compliance training, will reverse what is now a situation where front line international personnel are managing risk and sales issues on their own. That dynamic is dangerous for all involved, but all too common. Furthermore, as individual countries, even some in traditionally corrupt regions, are starting to take initiatives to combat corruption, you might be putting your employees in a situation where they are subject to local prosecution. 

No more “high fives” 

As Professor Mak Yuen Teen, (Associate Professor Accounting, NUS Business School, Singapore) stated in a recent blog (May 21, 2014) entitled “Plausible deniability and graft by MNC’s,” senior management needs to stop hiding behind business codes, anti-corruption programs and plausible deniability defenses and finally “address business practices, and how they reward, retain and promote their employees.”

As someone who spent the better part of my career living on the front lines of international sales and marketing, who confronted real-world corruption, and faced “real world” consequences, I challenge today’s readers, who have a responsibility to shareholders, employees, and their peers, to ask: “How are we confronting corruption and how are we achieving these sales targets in such low integrity regions?” Then, challenge appropriate executives across the organisation to sit down and talk with those in the field who are facing risk, look at how they are getting paid, analyse their sales targets, and start asking “how” they are achieving those sales plans. 

If those conversations are disturbing, you have made a tremendous step towards really understanding the relationships between risk, reward, corruption and compliance. From there, you can start looking at your business strategies, and, where necessary, review and rewind.  Accordingly, once your strategy, incentives, and anti-bribery ethics are all aligned and sending the same message, then you can go to your compliance and investigatory personnel and say “OK, here is the strategy, now give me your plan!” As Mr. Montigny stated, once strategy is properly in place, then you “are really serious about compliance,” even if it means taking that step back in sales. 

Originally published in Ethical Boardroom on June 12, 2014, with permission of the publisher.


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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Richard Bistrong FCPA & Anti-Bribery Consultant, Speaker & Writer | Attorney Advertising

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