Magazine article Workforce

Exporting Corporate Ethics

Magazine article Workforce

Exporting Corporate Ethics

Article excerpt

An Intercultural services expert explores ethics policy intricacies.

An old Vietnamese proverb-the law of the Emperor stops at the village gate-illustrates the principle that rules tend to lose their power the farther away they are from their source. And the distance needs to be measured in both miles and cultural norms.

As a country manager for 17 years in Latin America, I was responsible for upholding my organization's ethical standards in a challenging environment. I managed to avoid paying a single bribe in all that time. It wasn't easy. I had to use relationships, influence, leverage, exchange of favors and legitimate third-party facilitators to get things done. Also, I gave many thank-you gifts to people who made a special effort to be helpful. Sometimes I simply had to accept delays and a few setbacks as costs of maintaining my imported ethics.

Develop International ethics standards. U.S. corporations encounter countless obstacles as they walk the fine line between the requirements of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act-passed by Congress in the 70s to restrict unethical business practices of U.S. companies internationally-and the realities of local business culture. Many companies have written ethical guidelines to help their international business travelers, overseas managers and expatriate employees navigate the maze of local business ethics. Sunnyvale, California-based Advanced Micro Devices established its "Worldwide Standard of Business Conduct" and San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co. uses its "Business Partner Terms of Engagement and Guidelines for Country Selection."

Such efforts to make corporate ethics explicit and compelling in diverse cultural settings are plagued by many hurdles and pitfalls. Worldly-wise companies take into consideration the cultural values of the countries in which their ethics standards are to be applied. They don't assume the standards automatically will sell themselves or that they'll be understood the same way in all locations.

Corporate ethics statements typically deal with gift giving and receiving, proprietary information, bribes, nepotism in hiring practices, conflict of interest, sexual harassment, treatment of racial and ethnic minority employees, and use of convict or child labor by suppliers. All of these areas are viewed differently depending on the cultural perspective. Therefore, it's useful to determine what unique resistance and/or acceptance factors exist in a particular location.

Maximizing the buy-in of overseas employees, suppliers, clients and host government representatives requires dealing with the following issues:

Rule definitions: Are rules supposed to be obeyed without question or exception as generally they are in Switzerland and Germany? Or are they merely ideals meant to be honored in the abstract but not feasible in many situations, as I was told by my law professor in Bogota, Colombia? …

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