Is bribery unethical? Well that Depends…

We were presented with the following circumstances in our Ethics & IT Course this week; strangely, so far, I am on the only one who felt that the company would not be wrong to offer this ‘bribe’.  Does this mean that my moral compass has been destroyed by years of working in the dark-side of information security; or does it mean that I have a more critical higher level of thinking than all my other classmates.

Here is the situation:

Company wants to expand into China; The area the company is moving into is controlled by local officials.  Research suggests that providing a ‘payoff’ to the official will all but guarantee the approval for permits, the lack of a ‘payoff’ all but guarantees that the company will be denied necessary permits.  Research shows that all other companies are proceeding by hiring a consultant to “get the job done in anyway possible”; so as to be able to sign disclosure stating they didn’t provide any ‘bribes’; the CEO of the company is concerned that this is unethical, and is concerned they will violate their company principle of integrity and honesty.


Here are my thoughts:


According to WikiPedia, Bribery, is an act implying money or gift given that alters the behavior of the recipient (WikiPedia, 2009). And while I am sure that much greater minds have wrestled with this thought; and an answer much more deserving of applaud has been provided; I will take a humble approach at explaining my views on this question of the morality of bribery.

This evening, I took my wife out to a restaurant we frequent a lot; I tipped the waitress well; as I know tipping well and being friendly affords some future luxury when it comes to making reservations and getting seats that we like. I do the same thing when I get a haircut; I give out Christmas bonuses to my Mail-person and to the sanitary workers that collect my trash. All because I know it’s a good feeling to be appreciated, and this small act of kindness will go a long way. In fact, my company does the same thing for me; they give me bonuses when I do good, and they shower benefits (like paid vacation, time off, retirement plans, 401k matches, etc) to encourage me to stay at the company and to work harder.

After a second trip to a third world country, I learned that the customs officers know and trust certain people that work in the airport; I’ve made friends with one of the guys and I tip him well; as a result; he helps move me right through customs without having to wait in a long line or have my stuff dug through. I have also had a friend who once experienced sitting in an Ethiopian airport for almost a week waiting to be released; because she was with a group of people whose leader refused to pay the official to let them go (apparently this unofficial payment was an expectation).

I know in some countries where I have done business it is standard procedures for officials to take payments for their services, above and beyond what the official payments are to the governmental office in which they work.

Apart from all of these anecdotal views of the question of bribery; we were also asked to comment on another organizations way of dealing with this same type of situation. Whenever the idea of bribery comes up, the first organization I think of is the United States Government. I always find it a bit ironic that while our country of the United States makes bribery illegal, our entire governmental legal process is built on bribery – except; it is given a more politically correct name: lobbying. And by changing the name, we can continue to condemn the act in other governments and other parts of the world that we so readily take part in ourselves. Strange, isn’t it?

So what really is a bribe? What are the moral restraints of bribery? When is bribery acceptable and when is it not. What makes a ‘bribe’ immoral or unethical?
I would offer the following simple guideline to determine when bribes (payments) are immoral or unethical:

  • Are the bribes being used to facilitate an action that is itself morally questionable or illegal
    • For example; bribing someone to look the other way while a law is broken

In the case presented in our course room for discussion; given the little bit of information provided; that is, this organization will be approved for their expansion if they lobby the zoning official, and they will likely be denied if they do not; the question of morality comes from, not the act of lobbying itself; but what is the purpose and reason for lobbying (I guess you could say it’s a teleological argument).

Does the organization have to lobby because the law states that they can’t expand for the protection of the people (pollution, environmental, etc), or is the lobbying merely an expedient way to get someone who is on good terms with the government to put in a good word for them to all but guarantee their approval.
From what I have read about this situation, this “payoff” as described sounds nothing more than a zoning fee exacted by local officials on top of any government fees already being subscribed to. There is nothing in the reading that provides a reasonable belief that the act of this “payoff” will lead to a violation of a moral or ethical principle; additionally, there is nothing in the values of the organization that stands against the question of paying fees to government officials to get work done in a fast and efficient manner.

<Some part of conversation omitted>

WikiPedia. (2009, August 06). Bribery. Retrieved August 13, 2009, from WikiPedia, the free Encyclopedia: