The Morality of a Bribe — Can you say “Portland” or now “Chicago”


The Morality of a Bribe — Can you say “Portland” or now “Chicago”

Just as the bribee in Portland begins his prison sentence for taking money to send a lucrative contract to a certain parking equipment vendor, it comes out that a similar activity may have happened in Chicago, perhaps involving the same briber. Read about it here.

I was talking about this with a friend who said that he could see no moral problem with ‘offering’ a bribe, but his moral compass would not allow him to take one. The obvious inconsistency here got me to thinking.

In some cultures a “kickback” or “backhand” or ‘fee’ paid to the buyer by the seller is part of doing business.  It is so prevalent that it is built into many transactions. Many Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures find this perfectly acceptable, and in many cases necessary to do business.

Of course the problem is that is negatively affects the free enterprise system. Prices are affected, quality may be stressed, and of course, playing fields aren’t in any way level. People buy products based on what compensation they receive personally, not what the product will do for their organization or what fits best for their operation.

Bribery may ‘oil’ the process and make it run smoother, but does it also mean that there isn’t as much rebar in that bridge, or the inspection of the electrical system is not complete, or that the equipment warranty runs out too soon? Will the service be what you expect? Will the paint curl two years sooner?  Remember, the money for that bribe has to come from somewhere.

When people take bribes they think that the money comes from the manufacturer. Nope! It comes from them. If the manufacturer can afford $90K for a bribe, doesn’t that mean that the equipment cost $90K more than it needed to? When a purchasing agent takes a bribe, they are stealing money from the organization for whom they work, NOT from the manufacturer.

All the money in the process comes from only one place, the consumer, not the supplier.

In the end, a bribe is theft. It is money stolen from your company or organization, be it university, city, airport, or development. The briber is a conduit. Taking money from an organization with one hand and giving it back to someone within that organization with the other.

There is another type of bribe — its called paying for access. One of our largest parking organizations holds a meeting once a year where all its managers come in to be exposed to products the industry has to sell. To be allowed to attend this meeting, the organization charges the vendors big bucks.  Vendors are then allowed to make presentations, meet the regional managers, and be put on lists the managers use when selecting products or services.  Is this a bribe?

You are paying for access.  Everybody does it, so you sign up.  You raise your prices a bit, maybe just for that organization, and then you go to the meeting, pay the fee, and give your pitch. When you sell them a product, it costs a bit more than it might have. The money comes from the same place.

Now about my friend and his moral compass. Remember he wasn’t opposed to giving a bribe but was opposed to taking one. Giving was OK, but taking was morally repugnant to him. This man is a very independent cuss. He wouldn’t take a bribe because he would feel that in doing so he would be giving up his ability to make certain decisions.  He would be forced to act a certain way.  He would not put himself in that position. He would lose control.

My friend’s decision has little to do with right or wrong, but with control. My guess is that at least in this issue, his moral compass is spinning.

How can we affect any change, anywhere, if we don’t reflect that change in what we do and how we act? Both the bribee and the briber are equally immoral, equally thieves, equally responsible. If we want to fix the problem, we must first clean up our own act, on both sides of the process.



Picture of John Van Horn

John Van Horn

3 Responses

  1. Don’t you put on a trade show too? Isn’t this blog a little hypocritical? The purpose of the meetings is for people with like businesses to come together to network and learn. The fact that the organizers (including you) charge for the right to showcase products at thia meeting. Last I heard, this is marketing. Vendors have every right to decide where to spend their money – at a trade show (IPI, NPA, PIE, NLC, NACAS, etc) , in a publication like Parking Today or by doing smaller showcase events (God forbid you serve free food, it could be taken as a bribe!)

    Didn’t I just get an email from Parking Today encouraging me to attend the NPA this year?

  2. Just want to be sure everyone knows the friend you are referring to is not me. I am guilty of many things more interesting than taking and giving bribes.

    Well said John. Fortunately as an industry we have had very little of this type activity.

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