Bribery’s Broken Windows

Alexandra Wrage of TRACE international wrote Bribery’s Broken Windows (.pdf) for the Q1 edition of Ethisphere. She tackles the credibility issue with allowing facilitating payments to low level officials, but saying “no” to senior ranking official. She advocates that the companies should prohibit payments at all levels.

She looks to the New York subway system’s Clean Car Program which is in turn based on the Broken Windows theory of James Wilson and George Kelling.

Once one window in a building is broken, the rest will be broken soon after. The broken  window, left unrepaired, is a sign to the world that no one cares. If no one cares, there is no risk in breaking the rest of the windows. People are better behaved and less prone to escalating criminal activity when they see that their petty acts are addressed promptly and decisively.

Doesn’t it seem likely that this would hold true of petty bribery, too? If officials face “zero tolerance” for the smallest inappropriate demands, if both companies and enforcement agencies declare even the five and ten dollar demands an intolerable abuse of official power, won’t it be more difficult for a culture of corruption to flourish? Otherwise, low-level govern-ment officials will look at the broken windows and assume that no one cares.

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4 Responses to Bribery’s Broken Windows

  1. Chris MacDonald March 26, 2009 at 4:00 pm #

    Nice point.

    You could also draw analogies to the “corruption of judgment” hypothesis that legal-ethics scholar David Luban puts forward in his work on “wrongful obedience.” Basically, Luban’s idea is that once you comply on a small matter, it becomes easier and easier to comply (unethically) as the seriousness of the matter gets ratcheted up.

    • Doug Cornelius March 27, 2009 at 3:19 pm #

      Chris –

      This all translates into the reason for instituting a compliance/ethics program which is to stop a culture of corruption from coming into an organization.

      I think we as humans usually go along with the crowd. We won’t jump off the Brooklyn Bridge just because that what others in the crowd do. But mist of us might make some small transgressions.

      Once we get used to making the small transgressions, we get used to making the bigger transgressions. Eventually, maybe we do take that jump off the bridge.

      Most businesses start off with legitimate intentions. (even Enron). The key to compliance is to catch the small transgressions so that bigger transgressions do not become the cultural norm of the company.

      I have only read a little of Luban. I think I will correct that and add more of his stuff to my reading list.

  2. Chris MacDonald March 27, 2009 at 6:56 pm #

    Yes, Luban is worth a look. His explanation of the results of the Milgram experiments is compelling (as is his explanation of why it’s relevant to other settings).