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Acting Ethically in a Corrupt Environment?

DILEMMA:

Recently I had the opportunity to take a course in business ethics, and was impressed with some ideas about acting justly and fairly in business. The idea of looking for a win-win solution was appealing. Now I am facing the prospect of going back to my country and setting up a business. Unfortunately, corruption and bribery are the norm in my country, and I am concerned that if I try to run an ethical business, I will get destroyed in the marketplace. Is it really possible to act ethically in business in a corrupt country and still create a growing, prosperous business? And if so, how should I approach the task?

A graduate student from the Middle East

RESPONSE:

Great question! Managing possible conflicts between ethics and cultural sensitivity is very challenging. Even though right and wrong may exist in some objective fashion, our own perceptions are undoubtedly colored by our cultural backgrounds and experiences.

In your situation, it is important to have a clear definition of bribery. In some cultures, money may legitimately change hands in forms of that may constitute bribery from a Western perspective. Of course, the line between tips, gifts, and bribery is a fine and, often, fuzzy one.

I think it is possible to build a successful business while acting ethically, especially if “success” is defined by multiple bottom lines. Holding to a high standard of ethics can, of course, cost you something financially. Not knowing the exact details of the context to which you are returning, I think your chances hinge on how deep and wide the corruption runs, how good your products and services are, and who your primary stakeholders will be. Being a high quality and/or value provider gives you some leverage, and if you will be dealing with people from other countries, being ethical may well bolster your financial bottom line.

Kenman Wong
Professor of Ethics, School of Business and Economics
Seattle Pacific University

If you have an ethical dilemma at your workplace,
email Ethics at Work (eaw@ethix.org).
We will publish some of these in
Ethix along with our diagnosis.

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