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Taxicabs: Where Are You Sitting?

I was in Australia last week on vacation and got caught in a disconcerting conversation with the taxi driver who took my friend and me from the Sydney airport to our hotel.  The conversation started innocuously enough, with him asking us where we were from, and us asking him the same.  It turned out that he was from Afghanistan and had been in Australia for 20 years.  He told us that much of his family was still there despite him trying to get them to Australia.  I noted that it’s difficult to emigrate to Australia, and that’s when what I thought was idle chitchat took an unexpected turn.

The cabbie told us that it is indeed difficult to emigrate to Australia unless you know the right people to bribe and have a lot of money.  He said that there were several people in the immigration department who had made millions and millions of dollars in $25,000 chunks by bringing in hundreds and hundreds of their own “family” members.  As I was trying to wrap my mind (which was hazy from jet lag) around what he was saying, he went on to tell us how dangerous it is in Afghanistan.  He said that thieves were rampant and that they’d moved on to include stealing people – kidnapping.  Apparently, the son of a wealthy businessman in the town where the driver’s family lived got snatched off the street and held for a steep ransom.  The businessman was able to negotiate the price down, and he paid it, but the kidnappers had beaten his son so severely that the son was unable to recognize his parents.

The driver told us that most of the people in the Afghani government are criminals.  He said that there is a drug ministry, but that instead of preventing the drug trade, the ministry facilitates it.  This ministry has helicopters waiting to take opium to former Communist-bloc countries.  The driver told us that there’s a remote place in the mountains where the highest quality opium is grown, fed by purified water.  According to him, it’s the CIA that purifies the water for the opium.  The criminals in the Afghani government all work for the CIA, including the minister in charge of drugs, and that the CIA is responsible for distributing opiates to the former Communist-bloc countries to keep the populations there quiet and muddled.

The drive from the airport to the central business district in Sydney is only thirty minutes, and as you can see, we got a lot of information from him during that time.  (We got more than this, but this is enough to get a good flavor for the ride.)  I think part of the reason he was so open in his conversation is a quirk in taking cabs in Australia, which is that the first seat a fare occupies is the passenger seat in the front rather than the back.

I don’t know where you are on the scale of conspiracy theorists.  I don’t think many of us have the perspective (or security clearance) to affirmatively confirm or deny what the cabbie relayed to us.  What I do know is that the driver believed in his heart that all of what he told us is fact, and that we wouldn’t have heard what he had to say if one of us hadn’t been in the front seat.

All of this to say that throughout our organizations, employees are making, collecting, and sharing stories.  Some of them may be more true than others:  HQ approves of us using the travel agency to create a secret fund to encourage doctors and hospitals to use our products; management wants us to hire the sons and daughters of government officials to facilitate us the award of certain projects to us; the company talks about the Code of Conduct and expectations of how we do business, but here’s the way it really works.

We do a lot of traveling as compliance & ethics (C&E) professionals, primarily to do training or to run investigations.  Both of those instances are the equivalent of riding in the back seat of an Australian taxi – the formality creates a divide between the person with the stories and the right audience.  It’s up to us in C&E to figure out how to get in the front seat of the taxi and find out what our employees are really thinking.

[On this 12th anniversary of one of the worst days in U.S. history, I hope you’ll take a minute to remember all of the people who lost their lives and their loved ones but also the resilience and spirit of community that got us through the aftermath.]

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