Bribery and International Business: What Role Does Culture Play?

Emma Buckby

3 Jan 2016

The anti-corruption group Transparency International (TI) regularly highlights countries such as China and Russia as among the most corrupt in the world in which to do business. This might make some people think that bribery and international business is some kind of cultural characteristic or predisposition.

What is Bribery?

A recent survey carried out by the TI revealed that, out of the 28 countries considered by the poll, Russia and China are the ones where bribery is most widespread

Different ideas of what the concept of “bribery”implies might in fact have an influence on the rankings. Being aware of this can turn out to be very important when doing business in countries such as China or Russia.

Bribery Ranking of 28 Countries

A recent survey carried out by the TI revealed that, out of the 28 countries considered by the poll, Russia and China are the ones where bribery is most widespread. This is of particular concern, since they both have an increasingly influential global economic presence.

China and Russia’s trade partners are nervous about the possibility of “export of an inclination to bribery”. The TI Russian director, Elena Panfilova stated that, “unfortunately… there are no islands of integrity in Russian public and business life”. Is that really the case?

Despite the improvement of anti-corruption policies, progress seems to be only in official documents and not in practice. This is not only true for Russia and China, but also for the UK.

In fact, since the enactment of the Bribery Act, the UK has fallen two places in the TI ranking. However we must ask ourselves if the situation has actually become worse in the UK, or if simply the standards have changed and become stricter.

Bribe Payers Index

The method used to create the Bribe Payers Index can also be subject to criticism. In fact, the Index was created through a survey of 3,000 business executives, who were asked to give a number from 10 (never) to zero (always) when judging the likelihood encountering bribery when dealing with companies from different countries. Is basing an Index on subjective perceptions reliable?

Cultural Relativism

According to the theory of cultural relativism, human perceptions are culturally determined. This means that our culture influences the way we perceive what surrounds us, both visually and in terms of concepts and ideas. This implies the same word/object can be seen differently by people with different cultural backgrounds.

However, cultural relativism should not be confused with the universality of moral standards. In other words, if what the word “bribery” means varies from culture to culture, that does not imply that any of its meanings and implications should be defined as cultural and accepted.

Although it is clear that bribery is an unacceptable business practice and illegal in many jurisdictions, it is worth reflecting on whether the concept of bribery is the same in all countries or if, for example, Chinese and Russian businessmen have a different perception of what might be considered bribery. In both Russia and China, for example, gift giving is an important part of building business relationships. However this may be, in most cases, interpreted as bribery in the UK.

Learning as much as you can about the business culture and practices of the country you wish to do business with is key if you are going to be able to navigate the difficult waters of bribery and corruption

Prepare Yourself When Working Internationally

Is basing a bribery index on perceptions fair? This is a point worth reflecting on before making a definitive judgement based on a cultural stereotype.

If you are doing business in countries such as Russia or China, you should be aware of the differences in your counterparts’ way of establishing business relationships. Learning as much as you can about the business culture and practices of the country is key if you are going to be able to navigate these types of issues and more.

Try reading as much as you can or taking part in a cross cultural training programme specifically focused on these types of issues.



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