How Long Are Slippery Slopes?

An acquaintance of mine on Facebook casually announced earlier this week that she may have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.  She didn’t state it that way, of course.  Instead, her status update detailed the various people to whom she had to pay exorbitant “fees” and “tips” in order to get her visa to India processed and granted in a single day.  She bragged about her ability to negotiate the demanded price lower by 30%.

She’s smart and educated.  She graduated from an Ivy League school for her undergraduate degree; she earned an MBA from a top ten business school.  She is diligent about keeping up with her required training.  She might work for your company, and you would probably be thrilled to have her.

Maybe this acquaintance didn’t violate the FCPA.  She definitely bribed the government official who approves visas.  I suppose you could argue that what she paid was a facilitation fee.  I don’t know the nature of her trip, so I would be speculating if I claimed that she was gaining some sort of business advantage in paying the extra fees.  In any event, I don’t think that the DOJ or SEC will be pursuing her over the tiny potatoes this constitutes in the worst of circumstances.

I don’t claim to be innocent in this.  I contemplated sending her a note, letting her know how her status update could be interpreted.  I might have decided to do it, had she been a close friend, but she is an acquaintance, and so I remained silent.  (You might do the same based on the looks on people’s faces at cocktail parties when they find out you work in compliance & ethics.  It has become one of my favorite reasons to meet new people.)

It makes me wonder how long slippery slopes are.  It makes me wonder whether, when we say behavior like this is ok, we set our employees up to fail on our behalf on stages that are magnitudes larger when our colleagues lack the judgment to do the right thing.  And it makes me wonder how we can expect employees who observe questionable behavior to come forward when we spend so much time mired in the gray.

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