From (anti-)corruption to compliance

Do you remember the days when you could write off bribes against taxes and corruption was even said to have positive effects? It’s hard to believe, but this was just 25 years ago.

The fight against corruption in civil society and internationally ceased to be taboo in the 1990s and expanded in the 2000s. Almost all countries have now – often under external pressure – adopted appropriate laws and are subject to reciprocal intergovernmental obligations (e.g. via the United Nations, the Council of Europe or OECD). Finally, in 2015, all 193 UN member states unanimously committed to global development goals and thus explicitly to fighting corruption.

“Compliance”, that is, the observance of guidelines, has become a blanket concept and a modern organisational requirement in the private sector. Even if there is now a feeling of disillusionment because there are no rapidly effective formulas for a solution or methods for ethical deep cleaning with a long-lasting effect, and compliance is more like a marathon than a sprint, this is the new “normal”. And that’s a good thing.

Hyper-moralisation as a risk
Is there such a thing as too much compliance? To paraphrase Paracelsus: yes, even at the best of times. Three phenomena are prominent here.

  • The trend towards over-regulation: Complicated issues require specialists and create bottlenecks and monopolies. The original procedure for preventing a risk is itself a gateway for this very risk.
  • Overloading: Compliance may have been the “internal fight against corruption” until recently, but it is currently burdened with additional responsibilities and is sometimes overloaded. Some examples: COVID-19, agility, change, CSOs, data protection, gender, global warming & climate change, renewables & portfolio standards.The question remains as to whether new, predetermined breaking points will be created as a result of the overloading and specific approaches will be diluted whether we like it or not.
  • Hyper-moralisation: The philosopher and entrepreneur Reinhard K. Sprenger made the following comment in the NZZ some time ago: “Discord is spreading in western societies: moralisation and associated evangelicalism […]. We are pouncing on everything that can be ‘tribunalised’.” However, compliance should be based on facts and a stable moral consensus and not driven by outrage and moralising

Public versus private – Double standards?

More than 180 CEOs of leading US companies made people sit up and take notice with an open commitment in August 2019. They may have previously been committed to shareholder value, according to which the single social responsibility of companies is to maximise profits, but other values such as fairness, justice, ethical behaviour towards employees, suppliers, the community, etc. are now also parts of the responsibility portfolio. People would generally ask for “More decency!” here. This is exactly what legislators postulate for the private sector in many countries, even as far as for the responsibilities of the CEO and board. Given the scandals in Austria as well, one must wonder whether here too, from a political perspective, water is being preached and wine is being drunk.

Collective action or back – to where?

The role of economic activity, especially by major corporations as part of collective action, should not be underestimated. It doesn’t immediately have to be gold-plating, i.e. overfulfilment. An ethical solid plating should be good enough to start with. It’s just like in 2014 when umpteen CEOs of DAX-listed companies wrote an open letter to Chancellor Merkel and called for ratification of the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), which was long overdue in Germany. Until then, the country lagged behind as the penultimate G20 nation, and this had a negative impact on business locations. The CEOs knew this and took action: collective action at its best. Fairness and a good reputation pay off in the long term.

Martin Kreutner
Dekan Emeritus der International Anti-Corruption Academy (IACA)
T +43 664 5166206

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