Culture and Ethics


Bribery, cover-ups and corporate corruption are regularly exposed within multinational corporations the world over.   Recent accusations against Leighton International, one of Australia’s biggest companies that operates in more than 20 countries, is yet another reminder that unethical business behaviours occur across borders and industries. As Leighton International finds itself mired in the biggest scandal in its history, I thought that it might be appropriate to think of the global complexities that arise as we work across borders, distance and time.
There appears to be a consistent attitude that companies take – and that is that they can operate in a manner that is ethically consistent with their home country practices.  As I do more and more work in this area, I am surprised at the contrasts and frequent shortcomings that exist in ethical training and compliance programs across organisations.  Comprehensive ethics and responsible leadership programs need to be recognised as a core part of the business because the stakes are too high to be ignored.   Online e-learning modules that are designed as a ‘tick the box’ process do not suffice – as demonstrated by the extensive corruption that continues to persist in organisations where such programs are implemented.
There are fundamental cultural differences in values, behaviours and attitudes that are culturally bound; these have a significant impact on decision-making processes and outcomes.  These differences contribute to various perceptions of what constitute corruption and bribery and the appropriate courses of action required when they are recognized as such.  There are multiple attitudes toward accountability, due diligence, bribery, gift giving etc that vary enormously across cultures and as such no definitive, “one size fits all” guidance can be given.  For example, in hierarchical cultures such as China, the likelihood of someone speaking up or challenging superiors when corruption is suspected is unlikely. In other countries that are highly relationship oriented, it may not be viewed as unethical to hire an employee based on their connections rather than on their skills and experience.  Being a whistleblower in any culture is difficult, but particularly in hierarchical, harmony-based cultures.
Organisations need a certain degree of flexibility, balanced with corporate values and local expectations; while individuals need education, a great deal of courage and a supportive organization that provides effective processes and procedures to deal with ethical and compliance-related issues.
All cultures would claim to have ethical values but how different and similar are they? Is the discussion of ethics and compliance training predominantly a western construct?  I would like to hear your views…
If you would like to read my July newsletter ‘Ethical Leadership’ please go to