Richard Bistrong FCPA Blog

Richard Bistrong FCPA Blog

A Real World Compliance Blog based on the actual experiences and perspective of Richard T. Bistrong, a former international sales executive. A venue dedicated to the open and professional exchange of real-world FCPA compliance issues and challenges. Now at

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Bribery, Business Strategy and Plausible Deniability

Can business strategy in itself be a red-flag of corporate corruption?

In one word,  yes, and I discuss how in a recent guest blog (May 19, 2014) in Ethic Intelligence's "Experts Corner." 

I ask, if strategy is pulled back at the C-Suite, does it expose an executive message of strict anti-bribery compliance, while the economics of the sales forecast and corresponding personal incentive packages speak to a "win over everything else" mentality?

A gap in the debate

As I shared in the Q and A, I am concerned about the lack of discussion with respect to the corruption risk that front line international sales and marketing personnel face. Specifically, I draw attention to how corporate business strategy can directly contradict, through sales growth plans and incentive compensation packages, the messages of anti-bribery compliance. Such a situation leaves the sales force to decide "what does management really want, compliance or sales?"  While in past  writings I have discussed "compliance as bonus prevention" in the context of  incentive compensation, in the Q and A with Ethic Intelligence, I discuss the role of business strategy as a stand alone red-flag, of which compensation is a sub-set.

I am not alone

While I might have thought I was alone in expressing this concern, I recently came across an article by Professor Mak Yuen Teen, published in the Singapore Business Times on May 21, 2014, but also on his blog Governance for Stakeholders, titled "Plausible deniability and graft by MNCs." By way of background, Professor Mak is an Associate Professor of Accounting at the NUS Business School, Singapore. For his full (and impressive) CV, see here.

In his article, Professor Mak first calls attention to  the recent reports of GSK bribery in China, and GSK's public reaction as calling the conduct "outside of our processes and controls..." (The Guardian, July 22, 2013). However, Professor Mak goes onto demonstrate the  reporting relationship between Mark Reilly, former head of GSK China (and subsequently charged by Chinese officials), and his supervisor, Abbas Hussain, President of Europe, Emerging Markets and Asia Pacific, who is part of the "corporate executive team of GSK." As Professor Mak states, with this relationship "direct involvement in the scandal has moved up the chain of command of GSK." However, notwithstanding the discussion and relevancy of  the "rouge employee" GSK script, there is a far more interesting element to Professor Mak's writing as relating to corporate strategy.

"Did you wake up from a 10-year nap?"

Professor Mak references an on-line comment to the GSK allegations as above, and asks "whether he (GSK CEO Andrew Witty) and the board ought to have at least asked some probing questions when GSK China was reporting strong sales growth over the years proceeding the scandal." And that is where compliance gets separated from the reality of international sales growth.  Clearly, GSK executives were aware of two basic facts:

  • There was a robust anti-bribery program in place at GSK, as referenced in  public statements. Professor Mak makes reference to a 29 page anti-corruption document, and Tom Fox discusses the GSK Corporate Integrity Agreement (here).

  • There was high sales growth in China. 

Therefore, was it in fact what I have called a "zero-sum" game of compliance and sales?  Could those two factors have co-existed?  In other words, and I don't think is unique at all to GSK, "was it a case of don't ask, don't tell," at the C-Suite, as Professor Mak remarks. When the regional sales numbers were reported into management was it all "high fives," or did someone ask "hey, how did you get there?" I would ask the same of those who read this, who have been in those rooms, when the sales figures are shared.  What is the message?

Professor Mak focuses on complex multinational corporations (MNCs), where corporate executives are separated from the front line of sales by a deep and wide organizational chart. He asks, "should only executives such as Reilly take the fall while senior management and the board escape accountability..." and "can they really claim that they did not know what was going on...?"  I completely agree with Professor Mak, in that it is a long way from the C-Suite, where compliance programs commence, to the front line of international sales and marketing; however, does that distance justify the escape from accountability in not challenging the "reporting of strong growth in markets well known for corruption."

Professor Mak thinks not, and makes a compelling case, which is reflective of my own view.  I repeat his conclusion in  its entirety and in bold (just to make sure you get the message):

"It is time for senior management and boards of MNCs to stop hiding behind business conduct codes and anti-corruption and compliance programs, and a "plausible deniability" defense, and address more fundamental questions about the benefits and costs of doing business in highly corrupt countries, their business practices, and how they reward, retain and promote their employees." From my perspective, it would appear that the "default" for compliance and sales growth in low integrity countries, remains "zero-sum."

Maybe it is time that GSK listen to its own Chief Medical Officer James Shannon whom I referenced in a prior post, when he stated (in an interview with Reuters) that "sometimes you have to step backwards to move forward.." and that it is time for "an entire rethink about our business practice."

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Esquenazi Appeal: A Sales Perspective


I use the picture above as a symbol to ask a question: If one of these individuals represents an "instrumentality" as defined and affirmed by the FCPA and Federal Appeals Court (respectively), and the other does not, should it make a difference to an anti-bribery program?  The basis for this post is  the Federal Appeals Court ruling in case of Mr. Esquenazi (and Rodriguez), where, as Michael Volkov summarized, "most importantly, and as predicted, the Eleventh Circuit upheld the Department of Justice’s interpretation of the term “instrumentality” in the definition of a foreign official to include state-owned enterprises owned or controlled by foreign governments. "

Before elaborating, a few points, and my first goes to the families of Mr. Esquenazi and Mr. Rodriguez. Having spent time in the Federal Prison System, on the personal side, I take no pleasure or comfort in supporting their incarceration, even if understand the Appeals Court ruling.  Second, my response here is entirely devoid of any legal interpretation or debate. I am not an attorney, this blog is not in any way designed to suggest or provide legal opinion, so my discussion of the Esquenazi Appeal is only from my perspective as a former international sales executive. 

So, here is where I get lost in the "fog" of the debate; I have read numerous posts,  opinions, charts, comparatives, etc, on the various FCPA blogs about the ruling, and no doubt, from a legal perspective, these posts are well thought out and provide significant legal value to compliance practitioners. However, with that said, I have yet to see any discussion from the viewpoint of those on the "front line" of international sales, and how this ruling might (or might not) provide additional direction in how they contend with corruption risk in the performance of their overseas responsibilities.

Was it ok to bribe "non-instrumentalities" before the ruling?

Is the legal analysis somehow meant to imply that training and compliance programs need to now be re-engineered, as if perhaps beforehand it was acceptable to bribe people who fell outside of the definition of "instrumentality"?  Obviously not, but again, from a sales and marketing perspective, specifically with respect to how training and compliance are organized and implemented, what difference should this ruling make?  I can certainly see in the areas of "gifts, travel, entertainment, charitable contributions, and other things of value" as set forth in the Department of Justice Resource Guide, that the shoring up of this "line in the sand" will be helpful in guiding those in the field who have probably requested prior guidance about such definition. However, beyond those "travel and entertainment issues" how would this ruling change or modify compliance guidance to an international sales or marketing team?

A bribe by any other name....

A bribe is a bribe, it should not be condoned or sanctioned,  foreign official or no foreign official. Isn't the primary compliance and ethics message amplified and disseminated as "we don't bribe."  Thus, I can't see any responsible compliance executive now having to "change their tone" due to the ruling, as that would imply there were allowances for "non-instrumentality" bribes beforehand, and again, I don't see that as having been in place.  Nonetheless, this type of conversation as to "who is and who isn't" could be misleading to an overseas sales team.

Such a prolonged discussion of "instrumentality" might lead an overseas team to interpret a "hidden meaning" behind dividing customers into "public" and "non-public" entities, concluding that while bribing one group is illegal, perhaps the other is permissible, even if unethical. I don't think that would be the intention of compliance personnel,  so why make it an area of focus? I realize its a complicated issue, as it conflates ethics and legality, so again, why make the differentiation and elevate the potential for misinterpretation?

I think Michael Volkov comes closest in touching this issue in his post (see here) when he states "in the end, the appeal strengthened the government's hand and left little room for doubt-the FCPA applies with full force to entities that are controlled by foreign governments." Plain and simple. So, from a compliance and training perspective, my take away is "move on," as there has been no dilution to the FCPA and to the importance of business strategy, training and incentives as part of an anti-bribery ethic. In other words, the Appeals ruling provides no "ground cover" for corrupt behavior, and for those in the field who thought there was "wriggle room," take note. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Rationalizing Bribery: Corruption Has No Witness.

This is part three of my four part series on how I "Rationalized Bribery."  It addresses the reality that there are usually no witnesses to overseas discussions involving an actual or potentially corrupt transaction.

As tweeted by Ben DiPietro, Wall Street Journal Reporter,  @BenDiPietro1 during my interview with Wall Street Journal Reporter Chris Matthews at the April 23, 2014 Dow Jones Global Compliance Symposium (DJGCS):

"bistrong: usually no witnesses when sales person deals with third party vendors and talk turns to bribes."

For the most part, front line sales, marketing and business development personnel travel alone to their overseas territories.  Agent meetings (maybe including a public official) also usually occur without anyone else present. 

You Get Close, You Get Comfortable

Adding to "lack of witnesses" dynamic is the relationship which develops between an overseas employee and in country intermediaries.

The tradition and cultures of many countries leads to a great deal of social interaction outside of work hours.  My own relationships with agents developed and grew over the course of ten years.  We had obligatory evening meals, often in the home of an agent.  Over time, I even took vacations with agents and their families.  Some agents insisted I not stay in a hotel, but as a guest in their home. We became friends and as these relationships grew so did the level of comfort in the conversations.

During the course of my sales travels, casual discussions led (on a number of occasions) to the agents explaining to me, in barely masked language, that they were paying bribes to win contracts.  One of the first times this happened to me, I was on vacation with an agent I had known for years.  I had no reason to suspect he was corrupt, but on this vacation, he explained to me how he was "paying tolls" to win contracts.  

As I shared at the Dow Jones Symposium, the agent had presented me with a dilemma.  I have won contracts with this agent in the past.  I am hoping to secure future contracts.  And now he tells me about paying bribes (I didn't need to clarification as to the "wink and nod" language).

For Compliance Professionals, this is a simple "call home" moment.  Withdraw from all transactions with this agent, and inform Legal and Compliance.  Simple, right?  Not necessarily for sales or marketing employees, as the thought process can be far more complicated.  This is where the rationalization process can take hold and dictate decision-making.

For a sales, country manager, or marketing person, it is more than just walking away from a transaction, it means walking away from the entire third party relationship.  For these employees, there are not just short term financial consequences, but also the loss of all future deals, sometimes with regional implications.

As an example, see my post on Cisco and Russia (see post), where once the Cisco employee allegedly heard talk among agents about paying bribes, he was reported to have walked out of the room, not to report the conversation or undo the deal, but just to maintain deniability.

Add in Procurement Instability and Financial Incentives to Create the Perfect Storm.

As Ben DiPietro @BenDiPietro  tweeted during the DJGCS:

"bistrong: to pay a bribe or sever a relationship is more complicated decision than compliance people think."

In other words, when the employee hears talk of corruption, he or she might rationalize going forward due to vague language and lack of witnesses.  Add in procurement instability (see prior post) and incentive compensation (see prior post) to create a Perfect Storm for a bad decision – "I am not going to see this tender come back for quite some time.  If I lose it, a large part of my forecast and bonus projection will be gone, so why make trouble?"

As Maryam Hussain states in Corporate Fraud, The Human Factor, "it is often the case that a narrowly defined objective – an ever growing sales target to achieve bonus, a consistent progression of earnings per share to maintain an upward trending share price – takes precedence over everything else and can lead to employees stepping over the line to achieve the goals that have been set." Furthermore, the impact of not having a witness to these events can have an tremendous impact on that "stepping over the line" moment. 

As I have shared before, if the C-Suite preaches compliance but the sales incentive package awards "winning the sale" above all else, how will that employee determine whether management wants compliance or sales?  

Private conversations between agents and corporate personnel are not the red-flags that get picked up in an audit or routine review. These red-flags are only seen and heard by the international sales, marketing and business development teams.

I invite comment to how training and compliance programs address such scenarios.  Up Next: One more element to complete the "Perfect Storm of Rationalization."

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Corruption: A Lesson for Tomorrow's Professionals

Guest speaking on May 6, 2014 at Fordham University. "Contemporary Issues in Forensic Accounting." I shared with the students my reflections on international sales, both before and during cooperation, and detailed my thought process as to how I "rationalized bribery." My hope is that by sharing my perspective with tomorrow's business professionals, that they might be more aware of the obvious and not-so-obvious red-flags that might present themselves in their careers. I shared my own experience and the lessons that success built upon a corrupt foundation with corrupt behavior is no success at all. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Rationalizing Risk: Compliance as "Bonus Prevention"

As part of my series on “Rationalizing Bribery,” I now turn to the issue of personal incentive compensation. As tweeted by Ben DiPietro, @BenDiPietro1, Wall Street Journal Reporter, during my interview at the Dow Jones Global Compliance Symposium (DJGCS) on April 23, 2014 “I knew (what) I was doing was wrong but rationalized the risk.”

I call attention to his tweet to make clear that in sharing my “rationalization process,” I am by no means attempting to justify or deflect responsibility from my own behaviors. Rather, I hope that by revealing my thinking as I confronted corruption in the sales field, that I might provide value to today’s compliance professionals, as they look to assist those who work in challenging markets where there is a high level of corruption risk.

Joel Schectman, Wall Street Journal Reporter, @joel_schectman, tweet from the DJGCS: “You’ve already lost when it’s a zero sum game between compliance and profit. Richard Bistrong…”

Lets start with the premise that behaviors in any organization are driven to some degree by compensation.  As Andrew Leigh states in Ethical Leadership (2013) “you increase the chances of desired behavior happening by rewarding it.”

The relationship between compensation and compliance becomes even more critical when an international salesperson is working in a “low integrity” territory. Simply stated, if a salesperson has a high percentage of total compensation based on individual sales performance in a “low integrity” territory, the message of compliance becomes distorted by economics.  That salesperson is being paid in a way that encourages him to view compliance and compensation as a zero sum game.  Such a person is being asked by his paycheck to ask himself “Does my sales manager want compliance or sales?” Corporate compliance and ethics are now compromised, as a sales person tallies his “deliverables” if he is ever confronted with risk or actual corruption in the field.

Ben DiPietro, @BenDiPietro1 tweet during DJGCS “Bistrong: how you compensate a sales person will impact how they view compliance.”

Again, by putting someone in a "low integrity" territory with a high percentage of compensation based on individual sales performance, a company is sending out mixed messages.  Personal sales incentives ask an employee to focus on the ends, or “wins”  while compliance focuses the employee on the means.  When the two messages speak to conflicting priorities, a salesperson will be left to wonder what management really wants.

Integrating this type of compensation into an environment of procurement instability (as discussed in my previous post), certainly creates the potential for a  “perfect storm,” of risk rationalization.

There will be no shortage of sales, marketing and business development employees, with lucrative incentive compensation packages, who are going to want to push the envelope on finding a way to deliver sales success over compliance to a sales manager.  In an unstable procurement environment, where purchases are sporadic, unpredictable, yet financially significant, a sales person knows that if he or she misses a major procurement, it may or may not come back in the sales and bonus cycle.

Thus, when confronted with a corrupt transaction, the sales person may think, “I have a lot on the line here personally, this purchase won’t happen again for another year, at least, so what does my sales manager want, compliance or sales?”  As in my prior post on Cisco In Russia, when the Cisco employee heard the talk among his agents turn to bribes, he was reported to have left the room, and when invited to stay, he said “I don’t want to.” He did not walk out to call his compliance officer, he walked out as to not witness anymore what he was already hearing. What drove that decision, compliance or performance? 

Donna Boheme, Principal of Compliance Strategists LLC, @DonnaCBoehme, Tweet at the DJGCS, “Bistrong #DJGCS: for intl sales people “#compliance is ‘bonus prevention”

According to Mr. Leigh, “badly chosen incentives can undermine ethical behavior and even encourage unethical practices.”Accordingly, when compliance and compensation are not aligned and the message of anti-bribery gets distorted through personal incentive pay packages, then the result could, in fact, be a decrease in desired "compliance" behaviors.

In a recent conversation I had with a Eurpoean compliance professional, I shared my concerns about the impact of individual incentive compensation in sales organizations, specifically regarding anti-bribery compliance. He said in many companies, the C-Suite message is compliance and anti-corruption, but the pay schedule only tells employees “to win.”  These companies leave it to the salesperson to figure out the priorities.  When company executives engage in such “double-speak,” saying one thing, but paying for another, there could be serious consequences for all involved.  

In this type of environment, it is extremely risky to allow your international sales, marketing and business development personnel to decide corporate, group and individual goals.

More to come, as the Perfect Storm grows.