Are There Common Features of Dysfunctional Organizational Cultures? Corruption and Police Brutality

For the second time in the last several months, I’m finding it extremely difficult to blog about corruption due to a more urgent crisis. A few months ago, it was the Covid-19 pandemic, which is still very much with us. But now, in addition to the ongoing public health emergency, my home country (the United States) is in the midst of widespread social and political unrest triggered by the murder of an unarmed black citizen at the hands of police officers, as well as several other similar incidents. The underlying problems—systemic racism and misconduct by law enforcement agencies—are, sad to say, longstanding problems with deep roots. But the protests have given them new urgency and salience. And while there have been instances of rioting and looting—acts that the vast majority of peaceful protestors have roundly condemned—we have also seen what can only be described as a grossly disproportionate response by far too many law enforcement agencies and officers. In multiple cases, police have used unnecessary force not only against rioters and looters, but against peaceful protestors and members of the media who clearly identified themselves as such. And multiple senior elected officials, including President Trump and Senator Tom Cotton, have advocated the use of military force to suppress what they would characterize as civil unrest.

Suffice it to say that, given all this, it’s hard for me to think of something interesting or worthwhile to say about global corruption. But as I’ve been doing more to educate myself about the root causes of police misconduct (a mild term for a category that includes, among other things, brutality and racially discriminatory enforcement), I’ve noticed some intriguing similarities to some of the prevailing theories regarding the roots of organizational corruption (in both government agencies, including but not limited to police departments, and in private firms). Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising, because in both cases the ultimate issue concerns the reasons for widespread rule-breaking within an organization. To be clear, I don’t want to overstate the similarities, either with respect to the severity of the misconduct (I condemn bribery as strongly as anyone, but I wouldn’t dream of equating it with systemic racism or police brutality) or with respect to all of the causes and characteristics. I should also emphasize that I’m by no means an expert in police misconduct, and I suspect that many of my observations here will have already been made, or possibly already refuted, in the existing research literature with which I am not yet familiar. With those caveats, let me highlight some potentially intriguing similarities between the characteristics of police departments prone to racism and violence, on the one hand, and firms or divisions that engage in bribery, embezzlement, and other forms of financial malfeasance. These similarities may suggest some common features of ethically dysfunctional organizations. Continue reading

How Corrupt Institutions Corrupt Decent People

One of the great challenges in combating corruption—particularly systemic corruption that permeates an entire organization or institution—is figuring out how and why ordinary, well-meaning people would get caught up in activities that are blatantly unethical and usually unlawful. Yes, there are some greedy sociopaths out there, but most people at least like to think of themselves as good people. And yes, sometimes the sociopaths wield so much power that they can coerce collaboration or obedience—but in most cases, systemic corruption occurs only because a large number of people who think of themselves as basically decent end up doing (or at least tolerating and implicitly enabling) grotesquely unethical conduct.

We’ve had a few posts on this topic before (see, for example, here and here), and there’s a substantial and ever-growing body of academic literature, in fields like psychology and organizational sociology, which investigates this question. I’m still working through that literature and perhaps in a future post I’ll have something to say about the research findings. But today, I just wanted to share some insights on the question that originated in commentaries on a different topic: posts by Professor David Luban and by my colleague Professor Jack Goldsmith on the question of whether people of decency and integrity should be willing to serve in the Trump Administration. (Professor Luban’s published immediately after the election, Professor Goldsmith’s published in the wake of Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey last May.) Professors Luban’s and Goldsmith’s pieces are not about corruption, but rather about broader issues related to the challenges of serving a President who might push a policy agenda that many prospective appointees, though politically conservative, find abhorrent. Nonetheless, in reading these two pieces, I was struck by how much their analysis could apply, with only slight modifications, to how well-meaning individuals who join a corrupt organization (whether in the public or private sector) can end up compromising their integrity.

Below I’ll simply quote the relevant passages, with only minor edits to make their observations applicable to corruption (in a public or private organization), rather than creeping authoritarianism or a radical policy agenda: Continue reading

Should FCPA Enforcers Focus on Bribe-Paying Employees or Their Corporate Employers?

These days most (though not all) resolutions in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases involve corporate defendants paying fines or other penalties to the government. Usually (again, not always) the government does not bother prosecuting the employees who paid the bribes. (While the government has recently made individual liability in corporate criminal cases more of a point of emphasis — as exemplified by the DOJ’s Yates Memo, which Danielle discussed in yesterday’s post — the targets in those cases are typically senior executives who orchestrated bribe-paying schemes, not the lower-level executives or employees who actually paid the bribes.) The government also uses various legal tools to encourage lower-level employees blow the whistle on their employers.

Do we have this backwards? Right now, the government focuses its enforcement efforts on the corporate employers, rather than the lower-level employees who pay the bribes. Should the government instead emphasize enforcement actions against the employees? Right now, the government tries to give employees incentives to uncover and disclose evidence of FCPA violations committed by their employers. Should the government instead focus on encouraging the employers to uncover and disclose FCPA violations committed by their employees?

This past summer, I was fortunate enough to attend the Third Annual Conference on Evidence-Based Anti-Corruption Policies in Bangkok, and the keynote speaker at that event, New York University Law Professor Jennifer Arlen, made a case along those lines. (Professor Arlen’s address was actually a much more wide-ranging discussion of corporate criminal liability; I’ve extracted, and possibly oversimplified or distorted, one thread of her argument. But it’s an interesting enough argument that I think it’s worth engaging, and I’ll focus on the simple version, even though her position is more nuanced.) The argument goes something like this: The DOJ should adopt a policy that any corporation that discovers FCPA violations by its employees, and then promptly (a) discloses the violation to the government, (b) provides the government with information, and (c) assists the government in prosecuting the employee, should be exempt from corporate criminal liability for the violation; the DOJ should instead vigorously prosecute the individual employees in this situation (using the evidence that the corporate employer has itself provided). If the corporation fails to promptly disclose such a violation, however, and the government subsequently finds out about it, the corporation should be held criminally liable for the FCPA violation, and penalized accordingly.

I think this proposal is interesting enough to take seriously, though in the end I remain unconvinced that this shift in emphasis would be a good idea. Let me first lay out the argument in favor of this change, and then explain why I ultimately disagree. Continue reading

Guest Post: The Characteristics of Corrupt Corporate Cultures

Alison Taylor, the Director of Advisory Services for BSR (a global non-profit organization focused on sustainability) contributes the following guest post:

Despite all the investment in corporate anti-bribery compliance programs, supported by a lucrative consulting industry dominated by investigation companies and accounting and law firms, violations of anti-bribery laws, and firms’ own compliance policies, remains widespread. Why? The usual explanations focus on the external environment (“That’s just the way they do business over there”) or on “rogue employees,” but tend to neglect issues of “organizational culture”—how groups and teams behave when they might have a corruption problem. Yet organizational culture, structures, and incentives have been powerful factors in causing professionals to indulge in systemic corrupt practices.

But what, exactly, are the cultural drivers of corruption? What do a “culture of compliance” and its converse, a “culture of corruption,” actually look like? To find out I conducted in-depth, qualitative interviews with 23 experts on anti-corruption and corporate ethics. My questions were simple: What is the culture like in a corrupt organization? Can we generalize about leadership, decision-making, incentives, values, and behavior in corrupt organizations? Can we use these findings to understand the characteristics of an ethical culture?

The answers were revealing, and strikingly consistent in identifying the characteristics of organizational cultures prone to corruption. These traits, which I will summarize below, don’t guarantee that an organization will be corrupt — but the more of these characteristics are present, the more vulnerable an organization is. Continue reading