How to handle bribes like a pro
If you set your sights on being a destination entrepreneur, one thing is virtually guaranteed. You will eventually be asked for a bribe… and probably lots of them. Bribes come in all shapes and sizes, but the way you handle them could be the difference between success and failure.
So, let’s take a look at what kind of bribes requests you can expect. In my experience, the most common types include things like:
- Customs officials holding imported goods in port until they are paid an ‘expediting fee’.
- Police and soldiers at checkpoints finding issues with your car, or your license, until they are paid money for the ‘violation’ and let you pass
- Government officials withholding permits and/or official documents until they are paid a ‘fee for service’.
Most (if not all) bribe-takers most likely view bribery as part of their pay structure, and they probably factor in a certain number of bribes per month in their estimations of take-home pay – especially because their monthly salary from the government is difficult to live off. In some countries, certain types of jobs are extremely hard to get because the bribes are particularly lucrative. You pay to get the job, and then you pay for promotions.
To understand the endemic nature of bribery, take for example the story of Saboor, a traffic cop from Afghanistan featured in the Washington Post:
In two decades, he has received only one minor promotion [his colleagues pay for their promotions but Saboor refuses to do so.] His salary, unaided by bribes, is $200 per month. His toes are black after being run over several times. His throat is perpetually sore from Kabul’s dust and pollution, but he struggles to afford medicine or hospital visits…
Saboor has become a famous figure [in Afghanistan] because of his stance against corruption, but few Afghans are likely to follow his example. ‘If they don’t take bribes, they will suffer like Saboor,” said Mohammad Shafiq Hamdam, chairman of the Anti-Corruption Network.
When the chairman of the anti-corruption network is telling you that people will suffer if they don’t receive bribes, its time to listen carefully!! I am giving you this background not to condone bribery, but to help you understand some of the real human issues behind it.
So, how do you handle these types of routine bribes?
To answer this, you need to put yourself in the shoes of the bribe-asker. The bribe-asker isn’t after you in particular; they are after anyone like you, and they will probably try to solicit bribes from a large proportion of people like you who they interact with. These bribes are transactional. So, knowing this, here is the method I typically use, which tends to work well:
- Don’t take it personally. In fact, act jovial. If appropriate, joke with the bribe-asker. They are used to expats reacting with anger in a shakedown. This will make you stand out, which gives you a better shot at a favorable resolution.
- Politely, but forcefully make it clear that you will not be paying a bribe… ever. It is important you don’t actually mention the word ‘bribe’… accusing them of a shakedown would be rude.
- Call their bluff. In the case of an official, if they claim you need to pay an extra fee for something, or wait an extra long time, refer to official documentation that states otherwise. Make them prove their claim to you and let them know you can’t be fooled. If a police officer claims he needs to take you down to the station for processing, let him know you are willing to do that. Bribe-requesting police really don’t want to do this because they will waste time with you at no benefit to them when they could be asking for bribes from the next guy in line.
Honestly, with police I find these three initial steps do the trick. With service providers (customers, permit issuing agencies etc), you may need a few more tricks up your sleeve. For example
4. Be a total pain in the ass. Call and visit frequently.
5. Be ridiculously friendly. Bring them coffee and cake (or the local equivalent) the next time you turn up. Ask them about their children. Befriend them. The aim here is not to really become friends, but to pierce their ‘I don’t give a shit about you’ veil and get them to hear your plea that you need them to do your job properly.
6. If all else fails, you can try to use social pressure. Find their boss, find people who know them, kick up a big fuss. But be warned, unless social pressure is used tactfully, it has a good shot of backfiring. You might win the short game only to find that next time you come across the same person they are really going to make you pay!!
In all circumstances (unless you are at #6), be polite, courteous and recognize that leaving the bribe-asker with a graceful way to ‘save face’ is an important part of the process. Of course, many people will argue that paying bribes is simply a ‘cost of doing business’, but in my opinion, it is an unnecessary additional cost of doing business. Running a business in a developing country is hard enough without adding another layer of cost on top of it. In my experience, if you firmly say ‘NO’ for long enough, people you interact with on a regular basis stop asking and word gets around. It may take a while to get there, it may be harder to initially get to where you want to be, and you may have to be a little smarter than your competition, but it is way way better in the long run.
Just ask Siemens, an international business with more than 400,000 employees and operations in 191 countries, which paid $1.34 billion in fines for paying bribes to officials in Argentina, Bangladesh, Venezuela and Iraq. The firm paid this fine after spending well over $100 million on an internal investigation which took two years and involved 300 lawyers who gathered 100 million documents and interviewed employees and officials in 34 countries. Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it?
Have you had some interesting run-ins with officials in the country you work? What is your perspective on corruption and what experiences have you had? Share your views below.