Globalisation : Business Ethics in a Global Marketplace

Bruce Hamm studied for the Catholic priesthood obtaining a BA in philosophy with an emphasis on ethics.  He has experience as a volunteer police officer.  He has over eight years in US Navy combat operations, coordinating a tactical data link between various battle group elements, controlling combat aircraft and instructing combat operations.  Then entering corporate management, Bruce conducted numerous workplace investigations, managed compliance for one employer and developed a Business Ethics program for another.

In June 2001, he completed the “Managing Ethics in Organizations” course from the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College and the Ethics Officer Association.  Combining his practical understanding of how organizations work with his desire to create healthy corporate cultures, he completed his MBA in Organizational Effectiveness at Marylhurst University in 2002.

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Globalization creates a unique situation when it comes to ethics and values.  Other cultures have values that sometimes appear to be in conflict with traditional American values.  There are however ways to see the connection between other culture’s values and our own.  Something most do not know is that people from other cultures influenced some of our greatest writers.  Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225) read the writings of Avicenna and Averroes ancient Arabic philosophers.  Both Avicenna’s and Averroes’ logic and passion for mutual ethical treatment of the human person greatly influenced Aquinas.  There are grains of truth in all cultural perspectives and we must seek to find those truths and adopt them into our own ways of thinking and acting, if for no other reason than to broaden our own understanding of what it means to act rightly.

When creating value statements in a global business environment, we must seek these grains of truth to add to our richly diverse knowledge of what it means to behave justly.  One way to incorporate these bits of valuable knowledge is to speak with religious leaders in those foreign cultures; not to include their religious perspective, that is better left to the individual and their personal practices, but rather to find out what drives these culturally diverse people to act in certain ways.  These religious men and women have a wealth of knowledge about their local people that we can tap and make use of when trying to unify an ethics or values initiative for a global marketplace.

That said, we need to be careful to appreciate the difference between cultural sensitivity and cultural relativism.  Cultural sensitivity is understanding that diverse cultures have different contexts for and perspectives on what are proper and respected.  Cultural relativism says that because a different culture does not agree with a particular ethical standard that we should not apply that standard in that culture.  To strengthen a global business ethics initiative, find common ground first and then carefully consider differences that we cannot immediately resolve.

An example of cultural sensitivity that makes sense is to leave out the “Americanisms”.  For instance, any reference to baseball, red, white and blue, or apple pie would ignore the fact that most people from other cultures would not understand those references and if they did, they might feel the communication was directed only at the US workforce.  Look for general, professional ways to describe feelings, attitudes and behaviors that you want to express.  If you want to talk about family values, remember that in many cultures outside the US, when asking how large one’s family is you might get an answer in the hundreds, not the nuclear family or even extended number (in-laws, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.) we are more used to in the US.  Do not be surprised if someone in that kind of culture can name every one of the hundreds of members of their family.

When making ethical or moral statements be sure to make the language easy to understand.  Have the communications translated into the foreign language and then translated back into English via a different translator.  This prevents what happened to one company who talked about terminating employees in their statements.  The company translated their statements into Chinese and the final translation stated that for certain offenses the company would execute employees not simply end their employment.

If you have established contact methods for an international program, are you certain your foreign employees can access them ?  Have you had someone try from all of the remote locations to get access to your reporting or contact methods ?  Remember toll free numbers (i.e. 800, 866 and 877) do not work outside North America.  Foreign parties need standard telephone numbers and companies must consider having these calls billed collect so the employee does not incur the charge, which can be significant in international venues.  What about interpreters, do you have people available that can translate ethical concerns in the employee’s language ?  One way to resolve this is to contract your report line out to a company that has this type of resource available.  Several have translators on duty 24 hours a day.  Timing is another concern.  Halfway round the world is a completely different time zone.  Occasionally, your ethics staff may have to work some odd hours to resolve a problem in China, South Korea or even Russia in order to accommodate the foreign employee’s hours.

Another aspect of business ethics in a global environment is the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).  I am not an attorney; therefore, the following is my understanding of the FCPA from an ethical standpoint not a legal one.  For specific legal advice, contact a competent attorney such as your in-house counsel.  This act makes it illegal for any individual, firm, agent or anyone with a fiduciary duty to the firm to bribe foreign government officials to obtain or retain business.  The act specifically forbids paying, offering to pay or authorizing to pay money or anything of value.  This act also prohibits payments through third parties or intermediaries.

What is the spirit of this law ?  The spirit is to remove corruption from the way some companies do business in foreign lands.  One exception to this act is facilitating payments for routine government actions, sometimes called “grease payments”.  The act allows companies to use these payments to motivate officials, usually lower level functionaries, to do a job they are already supposed to be doing.  These payments are not meant for companies to use as a bribe to obtain new or maintain existing business, merely to keep your company’s products or services moving the way they would if the system worked as intended.

Bribery is illegal and immoral.  Although “grease payments” are technically bribery, the US government allows a company to keep doing business without undue delay.  I would suggest from an ethical standpoint that a company should also be working through legitimate means to correct a system where this is the case.  Whether the grease payment is because of low economic standards, common practice within the community, habit or some other circumstance, companies that find it necessary to make these payments might want to consider finding ways to correct the underlying motivations.

There are many points to consider when developing ethical standards for a global environment.  Those listed above are merely the surface points to take into account.  Developing a program that speaks not just to those familiar with American culture but to all cultures where the company will do business is essential to seeing the program be an international success.  Ethics exist throughout the world, despite some evidence to the contrary.  Getting all our employees to accept appropriate ethical standards makes our companies stronger and we become better corporate citizens in the process.


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