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International Business: Dealing With Corruption When It’s The Norm

By Debbie Nicol (1084 words)
Posted in International Management on May 28, 2013

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By Debbie Nicol, Managing Director, 'business en motion"

There are international assignments and then there are INTERNATIONAL ASSIGNMENTS! You may well ask – what could be the difference? Corruption is most certainly one of those differentiating factors that can truly test a manager in a new culture.  The problem for you is that these practices, although they go against every legal and ethical standard you personally live by, are acceptable and competitive practices in your new environment.  You are forced to make choices…do you compromise your ethics to allow the local team to conduct business, enforce the standards from your own country risking your business result, or oversee a transition to combine the two?  If you find yourself embedded into a corrupt society, here are some valuable tips you can use to best handle the situation.


6 Tips To Balancing Ethical Obligations With Realistic Expectations


1.    Keep an eye on reality at all times. 


Declare the future in your part of the world (your actions and your business environment) yet remember that one voice against the tide can be a tireless, and many times futile disposition.  A country’s culture and behaviours have developed over many years and for many reasons that you may never understand. Whilst you may not understand that, it’s important to remember to keep a real eye on the influence (or not) that one person can realistically have.


2.    Be clear on what you will and will not stand for.


….and stick to it!  Modelling the way forward speaks loudly, and we are what we are surrounded with. So whilst the outer circles allow and encourage us to be corrupt, when there’s a consistent voice on the inner circle, one that is walking the talk, it will one day, some day, become the norm.  I have seen this with my own eyes, and when it occurred, it brought tears to my eyes!  Don’t only focus on change, be sure to teach how new practices will bring benefit to local business results.


3.    Ensure all systems continue to embed and endorse the practices or standards.


Look around you and ask yourself – what presents an opportunity to embed, reinforce, repeat, endorse and send the same new expectation using a different medium?  The traditional methods may include placing the priority as an agenda item on meeting schedules, make an award named after the standard, dedicating a Chairman column in the weekly or monthly newsletter, create a feedback mechanism that will allow great examples to be spotlighted, etc. However don’t forget we all have imaginations. Is there a staff party coming up soon and if so, could the food stalls be named according to the new standards? Could the staff entrance be decorated with a maze that staff needs to navigate (the standards) to enter the workplace?


4.    Carefully consider rewards for ethical practices.


Take a loud and clear stance here. Is it their job to employ ethical standards in your workplace? If so, be sure to treat ethical practices as their job and not something that needs to be rewarded. Rewards gain traction when they are over and above the call of duty – why reward what is already expected?


Should an alternative perspective be adopted here, ensure consequences are considered before introducing it in any way.


5.    Surround yourself with a strong support network.


This team will be your anchor when times get tough.  They will need to be aligned in every way, and remember, values are all we have when times get tough.  Define criteria to look for when recruiting your support team.  The ability to be self-confident, even in the face of corruption, will need to be strong.  Self-reliance will be another helpful trait, one that will accept that other opinions and dispositions do exist yet one that will also take decisions according to what serves priorities best.  Nothing or no-one can exist in isolation – this support network will become your lifeblood in times of conflict and when things feel that they are just ‘too much’ to handle.  Aim for a blend – some from your corporate HQ team and some locally – the broader the coverage of your network, the broader the support can be.


6.    Be real


Have real expectations.  Rome wasn't built in a day, nor will you change the world that fast either.  Reality, however, can mean opportunity.  What did the person or manager before you achieve? Do you wish to mirror that or perhaps take it one step further?  To be real, you’ll most likely have a foot in each camp, secured on the left by the central or HQ policies and on the right, with the local practices. 


People are creatures of habit, and if they see that change serves them and others, eventually they will change, yet after some time and with some pain.  An international manager’s role can facilitate this, with determination, focus and unyielding consistency. Are you up for the challenge?


{#/pub/images/debbienicol.jpg}Written by Debbie NicolManaging Director, 'business en motion' 
With leadership workshops, strategic approaches to organizational development and change, executive coaching and public speaking engagements, Debbie’s USP is the ability to open minds of those around her. Offering both traditional and contemporary toolkits focused on story-telling as the impetus for self and corporate leadership change. Sectors span across Asia, Africa and specializing in Middle East, including Saudi Arabia.


Do you have a management question for Debbie?  Please visit our International Management Community, she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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Comments (2)

Greg Marcus posted on: May 31, 2013

Thanks for sharing. I particularly like the suggestion to have a support group. It is very hard to stick with values that run counter to the culture without the support of a community.

Peter Watts posted on: June 2, 2013

A thought provoking article.

Especially for multinational business, where standards are so often set at headquarters, there's a job of understanding that needs to be done back at the mothership.

In so many cultures, gift-giving is an accepted and expected business courtesy. When HQ outlaws the accepting of gifts, staff based in foreign cultures find themselves in a quandary; accept the gift & win the deal, or decline the gift and give offense.

A smart local Country Manager will know which to do, but in the process they have been forced to move out of compliance from the rules of their own organisation.

Compliance works best when HQs rules are built with some flex to allow respect for local cultures.

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