I was working as a U.S. management consultant in a south Asian country with a strong tribal tradition and a relationship-based culture. Decades of social unrest had created an environment where most people were focused on meeting their short-term needs. My team received a new assignment to advise a high-level government official and his support staff (administrators, secretaries and logistical departments). The official met with us and was generally positive about what we would accomplish together. Towards the end of the meeting, he began bringing up several requests, and asked me halfway through if I was “writing this down.”

The requests were:

  • 1,000 light bulbs for his office
  • A digital camera
  • An electric generator for his home
  • Viagra

He then explained that we could begin our work after he received these items.

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

One response »

  1. John Hooker says:

    Cross-cultural ethics is a complicated affair, but one ethical test we can apply is a variation on the generalization test: would the behavior in question undermine the cultural system on which one depends if it were universal practice? If it would, it is unethical. Bribery normally fails this test – in rule-based Western cultures because it undermines respect for the rules, and in relationship-based cultures because it short-cuts the long process of building personal trust relationships.

    In this case, however, we have a culture that is already dysfunctional. Tribal leaders traditionally offer gifts (or even daughters) to secure a deal. A Western-style national government works on very different principles. So here we have someone who grew up in a tribal culture working for a national government and trying to carry on business in the traditional way. This can’t work, and we get widespread corruption.

    So generalization arguments drop out of the picture, and we fall back on utility. We try to negotiate a deal that is best for all parties. It is unlikely that this official is in a position to demand whatever he wants. The way to deal with him is to drive a hard bargain. Offer him gifts or services that are useful to his constituents as well him personally. Maybe a new road or water pipeline, which would enhance his personal prestige. Supplies for his office may be OK, because they benefit the government. Maybe smart phones and electric generators for his top staff. Viagra is another matter…

    Of course, your company may impose restrictions on side payments. Pointing this out can be useful in bargaining. Also, because this is a government official, you must be very careful about offering what could be interpreted as bribes for his personal benefit, because the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act comes into play. It is imperative that you obtain competent legal advice before going ahead. Several firms offer this kind of advice. Then you can tell the official that you are not willing to risk a felony charge.

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