By now, you may have seen the news that Wal Mart has been implicated in a bribery scandal related to growing their business in Mexico. The charge, which is likely correct, is that they had to bribe countless officials in our neighbor to the south to get permits and other legal checklist items complete in months rather than years.
Hold on - what's that? Mexico might be a country where bribes aren't only considered, they're expected?
Who to hate then? Wal-Mart or a culture that mandates bribes at the governing level? Hate the player or the game?
It's easy to pile on Wal-Mart - they've always been an easy target. Shutting down millions of mom and pop stores of all kinds. Paying their people - well, not much. Now they're taking all that money and bribing their way into other countries.
But if that's the expected way of doing business, what's the solution? Not to compete globally?
Holmann Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal set the stage earlier this week for why developing countries are problematic when it comes to bribery:
"Conor Cruise O'Brien, the late Irish diplomat, once explained the alarming arithmetic of a certain kind of corruption for poor countries.
Take the agriculture minister who approves the import of $20 million in tractors his country can't use and that will rust in the fields. He does so in order to receive a $200,000 bribe from the tractor salesman. Had he simply been paid $200,000 to render an honest decision not to import the tractors, his country would have been $19.8 million better off."
Jenkins went on to say that due to this reality, a few foreign governments, most notably Singapore, pay their government officials high six to seven figure salaries - all in the name of making them less susceptible to corruption. Of course, in the example above, the government official bought something the country didn't need.
Think about Mexico for a second. You think Mexican citizens don't need more access to low priced food and goods and a world-class distribution system?
To be sure, Wal-Mart might be running afoul of a law called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits U.S. companies operating overseas from bribing local government officials. But the law has a spotty history.
Only twice in its 35-year history has the Justice Department brought a company to court — and in both cases, the government lost. The department also has a decidedly mixed record when it comes to prosecuting individuals under the law. The reason for that is probably due to the reality - it's tough to prove, and more importantly, when you look under the covers, it's accepted as a normal cost of doing business in the countries in question. It's a marketing cost in those countries - everyone expects it.
Which puts you, the talent pro, in a tough spot if you're sending people off globally to do business. Figure out how the handshakes and introductions work first.
Then get busy figuring out the guidance you're going to give your people regarding graft.
You can say that "we'll never bribe anyone". But that's your culture, not theirs. And you're a vistor in their country. If you're taking the time to learn all the soft culture stuff and follow their norms in those areas, why wouldn't you wrestle with whether bribes are in your best interests and part of their culture?