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Facilitation Payments and Armor Chinks

In addition to the compliance & ethics (C&E) consulting, I facilitate quite a few workshops, both related and not to C&E.  Several months ago, a client asked me to facilitate four, two-day workshops on leadership and communication:  two in the U.S., one in Brazil, and one in India.  Because of the client’s schedule, I needed to deliver the two workshops in the U.S. back-to-back in the same week, followed by the workshop in Brazil the next week, followed by the workshop in India the week after that.

Between the workshops in Brazil and India, I flew to Dallas, spent one night at home, rotated out the contents of my suitcase, and returned to the airport for the first of my flights to India.  I flew 9.5 hours from Dallas to Frankfurt, had a 4-hour layover, then flew 9.5 hours from Frankfurt to Bangalore, landing around 1am Bangalore time.  I stumbled off the plane and to the immigration line, clutching the tiny form that asked for the usual travel information (name, citizenship, flight, purpose of visit, etc.) and one unusual piece of data:  a list of all countries I’d visited in the six days prior to arrival in India.  I wrote down the U.S. and Brazil and then added Germany after some internal debate about the necessity of completeness and honesty.

I snaked through the line with dozens and dozens of other bleary, sticky foreigners and finally got called to the next available booth.  The official checked my passport for a valid visa and had one hand poised to stamp my passport and the other one poised to motion me through, when he looked at the tiny, business card-sized piece of paper and stopped.  He quizzed me about the countries I’d listed.  I assumed he was caught up in the discrepancy between stating I’d been in Germany and not seeing corresponding stamps in my passport.  I explained the layover, and then he asked me for my yellow card.

It was 1:45am, and I did not understand what he wanted.  He explained that he needed the yellow card that lists the vaccinations I’ve had.  I didn’t have it with me because I never travel with it.  He called his supervisor, who I thought would wave me through after I explained.  He didn’t.  Instead, he pulled me out of line and into the medical room.

The gentleman we woke up there explained to me that because I’d been in Brazil in the previous six days, I posed a yellow fever risk to the country of India.  He went on to say that my options were either to sit in quarantine in an Indian hospital for three days or leave the country on the next flight out.  Then he asked to see my yellow card because he needed proof that I had been vaccinated against yellow fever.

I explained that my card was back in Texas.  I also explained that I had been in a major city in Brazil on business, not in the jungle hiking.  He said it didn’t matter.  I asked him if he could test my blood to see if I had yellow fever.  Not an option.  I asked how yellow fever gets spread.  When he said mosquitoes, I offered to let someone check me for bites.  He declined.  He repeated that my choices were quarantine or deportation, and that I would have to bear the costs associated with keeping me in quarantine.

And then, in desperation, I did the thing that brought home the problem with the facilitation payments exception of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).*   I took a breath, looked him dead in the eye, and asked, “Is there a FINE I could pay?  Because I would be HAPPY to pay a FINE.”  The answer was no.

Here’s the thing.  I am not your average employee when it comes to the FCPA.  I know what corruption can do to individuals, to companies, to governments, to the economies of their countries, and to global security.  Corruption itself is wrong, but what’s worse are its pernicious, wide-reaching ripples.  But at 2:15am after traveling for almost 24 hours, I grasped at the straw of facilitation payments.

Several years ago, CEB research found that one of the top five leading indicators of misconduct is when employees are more committed to their jobs than to the company.  I could argue that I exhibited greater commitment to the company and the client than to my job – there would be no negative consequence to me personally in going home.

The problem is that, if I had contracted yellow fever, in offering the facilitation payment to meet the needs of my client and my firm, I risked the health of 1.2 billion Indian citizens.  Maybe that’s an exaggeration.  Maybe I risked the health of only the citizens of Bangalore.  That’s still 4 million people.  And mosquitoes don’t recognize city borders.

I’m ashamed of what I did.  In the end, the Bangalore airport officials turned me around and sent me back to Frankfurt.  The experience has made me reconsider:  what message does the facilitation payments exception send; what would the average employee do in my shoes; and do we need to teach our employees to prioritize the interests of the communities and countries where we do business above the interests of our companies.

Is your culture strong enough to withstand a situation like this?  Would your guidance to employees help them?  How do you know?

* The FCPA is a U.S. law that prohibits engaging in the corruption of foreign officials overseas for the purpose of gaining some business benefit; the facilitation payments exception is for small amounts that grease the wheels of bureaucracy.  Many C&E experts and analysts find it to be a troubling gray area.

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