If you have not yet tackled the question of ethics in procurement, now is a great time to start. It does not matter whether you are a procurement professional, internal customer, external customer, senior executive, or supplier. Directly or indirectly, you are affected.
Procurement is what sets entire supply chains and their organisations in motion. How a procurement function handles itself—and its activities—sets the tone for all events that follow, right up to the final delivery of goods and services to the end-customer.
Ethical Procurement: Some Scenarios to Consider
The ground rules for good ethics in procurement are simple enough. Practice integrity, avoid conflicts of interest and personal enrichment, treat suppliers equally and fairly, and comply with legal and other obligations.
Quite simply, the overriding principle is “do the right things.” However, simple is not the same as easy. One of the challenges of ethical procurement is to know how to make it into a practical reality that people can apply consistently.
For example, how would you deal with the following situations in procurement?
- You are responsible for the procurement of janitorial supplies for your mid-sized company. A potential supplier sends you its catalogue together with a gift of an expensive-looking ballpoint pen with the supplier’s logo on it.
- You have agreed to a two-year supply contract with a small, foreign supplier, but a drop in demand for your own company’s products is seriously depressing its profitability. Another supplier guarantees lower supply prices that would re-establish the margins your company needs to meet its objectives. That would mean breaking the contract with the first supplier without just cause. Legal action by that supplier would be unlikely, because of its small size.
- Your Italian company is negotiating the supply of aerospace products to a government in Asia. Your contacts in that government insist that in return for a successful negotiation, your company buys goods/services from a supplier in the Asian country.
- Your American company is competing with the Italian company above for the same contract. The government client insists on the same conditions. Will your American company’s procurement policy differ from that of your Italian competitor, and if so, how?
Read on for more about these examples in the text that follows. If any of them have left you bemused, you can take comfort in the fact that you are certainly not the first and probably not the last to wonder about the right thing to do.
Procurement Ethics: Shocks, Horrors, Scandals and More
It may seem strange that procurement, often viewed as an unexciting part of an enterprise, can be embroiled in events and situations that make world headlines. Ethics—or lack of them—is often at the heart of the discussion. From the deaths of garment factory workers earning pittances to corruption and kickbacks in defense contracts, procurement can be a hotbed of horror stories and scandals.
Immoral or illegal practices can include:
Bribery: Unethical buyers may make payments in cash or in-kind to individuals or their friends, family, or partners to buy their support for a supplier or a contract negotiation. Bribes can occur before, during, or after (kickbacks) award of a contract.
Coercion: Threats made against or pressure put on individuals with the same objective as bribery – to gain support for a supplier or contract negotiation. The difference is that whereas bribery aims to motivate individuals with what they can gain, coercion aims to motivate through the fear of what they might suffer or lose.
Extortion: Asking for a bribe or similar illicit payment. The request may or may not be accompanied by a menace.
Favouritism: Also known as nepotism, in which individuals give undue preference or negotiating advantage to a supplier who is a friend or part of the same family.
Illegal sourcing: Suppliers offer goods or services misrepresented or produced illegally or immorally, whether because of the materials in use (such as the substitution of horsemeat for beef) or the labour conditions in which production occurs (notably in the garment industry). Stolen and black-market supplies are further examples.
Traffic of influence: The exchange of a contract award (or support for the award) for a favour or preferential treatment by the other party or another individual or organisation.
Bribery in Procurement: What Happened at Smith & Wesson?
As bribery is one of the more common forms of unethical or even fraudulent procurement practices, it’s worth examining a case study to understand how it typically occurs. Perhaps more importantly, the following case also highlights the consequences of what some may see as merely ‘greasing the wheels of business’ are increasing in seriousness.
Between 2007 and 2010, during attempts to win firearms supply contracts with law enforcement and military agencies in Indonesia, Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Turkey, gun maker Smith & Wesson’s sales employees allegedly embarked upon a spate of unethical transactions, via third-party representatives, with foreign officials.
The Smith & Wesson employees authorised, offered, and paid financial rewards and gifts to government officials in the aforementioned countries, to the value of some $11,000. In return, the officials tried to influence the procurement decisions of the various agencies to secure the contracts for Smith & Wesson.
What’s Interesting About this Case?
In an earlier time (although not so very far back in the past), it would have been unheard of for a company to be taken to task in its home country for greasing palms overseas. The Smith & Wesson case served as a wakeup call to enterprises in the United States, highlighting the change in government attitudes toward ethical business practices.
What’s also interesting is that apart from the Pakistan deal, which went through and netted just over $100,00 for Smith & Wesson, none of the other contract deals was successful.
In the end, this unethical sales initiative turned out to be an $11,000 gamble that cost the jobs of the entire Smith & Wesson international sales team. It also exposed the company to $2 million in fines levied by US federal regulators—not to mention doing untold damage to Smith & Wesson’s reputation. The company neither admitted nor denied any wrongdoing—probably a moot point, as it paid the fines and has seen its name tarnished by association with the incident.
What Can We Learn from Smith & Wesson’s Misfortune?
Sadly, this story centres on how a company harmed itself by engaging in unethical sales (as opposed to procurement) practices, primarily because it’s not known what happened to those on the other side of the negotiating table. What is known, though, is that corrupt officials received bribes and that those who paid them received no benefits.
Aside from the Pakistan deal, Smith & Wesson won none of the contracts concerned, and the perpetrators (if that’s what they were) lost their jobs and their professional credibility.
Given that in Indonesia, for example, business bribery is commonplace (despite the efforts of a governmental anti-corruption agency), one must wonder if Smith & Wesson’s salespeople were the corrupters in the incident, or rather, were the corrupted parties.
Despite being a sales-focused story, the moral does hold relevance to procurement. It highlights how tolerance for unethical business practices has diminished in recent years, even when a national economy (in this case, the United States) stands to gain from international supply contracts. Imagine the ramifications in a reversal of the Smith & Wesson situation if a company procures products or services unethically overseas at the expense of local suppliers, and receives exposure for having done so.
The Impact of Poor Procurement Ethics
The immediate reaction to the idea of unsatisfactory procurement ethics is that it will be damaging for public relations if those ethics become known. In this information-rich and communication-enabled age, bad press can spread rapidly—as confirmed by the Smith & Wesson case study.
Consumers and other members of society wield considerable power in the form of associations, forums, and networks, whether online or offline. They know how to use that power to punish enterprises and organisations they consider offenders. Sanctions can include boycotting purchases of a company’s products or services, or voting governments out of power.
However, this is only part of the picture. Even if an organisation is able to hide unethical procurement activities, it lays itself open to other problems. The first being one of management.
- If senior management does not know about the lack of ethics or takes no action, then it is inherently inept.
- If senior management condones or actively supports unethical behaviour, it is corrupt.
The second is the efficiency of the procurement process and the effect on overall organisational performance. If personal gain, rather than value to the organisation, is the driver behind procurement, profitability suffers.
A third problem is rogue procurement. Having seen the example set by others, non-procurement staff may initiate procurement efforts of their own, which are, in turn, likely to suffer from inefficiency, reduced value to the organisation, unethical behaviour, or any combination of these.
Who Judges Whether Procurement is Ethical or Unethical?
Some organisations rise to the challenge and produce a procurement ethics manual. These documents can vary in length. Some are succinct web pages, while others are detailed handbooks that explain not only the principles to be observed, but also give examples of how and how not to conduct procurement ethically.
The guide made available online by the United Nations is a case in point, and interesting background reading for anyone who wants to dig deeper into the subject. Yet as the United Nations Procurement Practitioner’s Guide also points out…
“No matter how hard policy-makers try, they will never specify in law, code, regulation, rule, or other written requirement everything that a procurement officer needs to know regarding what is allowed or appropriate and what is prohibited or shunned. It is necessary for procurement officers to understand what the law or rule is intended to accomplish.”
Depending on countries, cultures, customs, and even industries, definitions of what is ethical or unethical in procurement may vary. Practices that some parties might define as corrupt, may be taken for granted by others and considered a normal part of doing business. The aerospace and defense sector is an example. Some public sector buyers ask foreign suppliers to in-turn award contracts (“offset contracts”) to local or national companies.
One consequence of offset contracts, which buyers often desire, is to improve the balance of payments between the two countries concerned.
The recent procurement scandal involving Italian company Agusta-Westland’s sale of helicopters to India included such offset contracts. Italy currently has no public law about this. On the other hand, the United States opposes mandatory offsets as breaking free market rules and hence, considers them unethical.
As it turned out, offset contracts were only part of the problem. Other factors fuelling the scandal included the alleged millions of dollars paid by intermediaries as bribes and the possible alteration of procurement specifications to help sway the contract award decision.
Role Models Start at the Top
Procurement ethics, like many other aspects of management, are top-down. The example set by senior management, its attitude, and its behavior strongly influence employees further down the pecking order. Senior managers have to demonstrate fairness and transparency to encourage the visibility of the same qualities in procurement executives and teams. Procurement ethics have to be on display.
If ethical standards are applied, but hidden, suspicious among stakeholders (internal customers and suppliers, for example) can still arise if decisions do not match their hopes or expectations.
That does not relieve the procurement staff of its responsibility to “do the right thing.” Nor does it guarantee that the right thing to do will be apparent. The example-scenario earlier in this article about breaking a contract with a supplier came from a real-life case.
Instructed by a senior executive, the procurement executive terminated the contract with the first supplier. The financial prejudice to that supplier was probably severe and possibly fatal. Termination of the deal, however, meant valuable fiscal breathing space for the buying company. Sometimes there is no easy answer, even from the top.
The Supplier’s Point of View
There is an assumption sometimes that the villains in a procurement scandal must include the supplier. After all, if people involved in procurement are corrupt, there must be a corruptor, and suppliers can make good scapegoats.
Many suppliers, though, have their own written rules for employees about how to conduct sales activities and contract negotiation and management with public sector clients in particular.
Procurement teams would also do well to remember that suppliers that have behaved ethically and won business honestly, also need to be paid in a timely way. Otherwise, motivation for upholding ethical standards can dwindle, and there may be fewer surviving ethical suppliers with which to do business.
Detecting Potential Procurement Ethics Problems
Identifying and understanding the problem is essential for anyone intending to put solutions in place. Telltale signs that something is amiss can fall into the following categories:
- Excessive secrecy: This can range from missing files and records to resistance to audits and reluctance to delegate or run competitive tenders.
- Suspect procedures: Normal procedures are ignored, or appropriate checks and balances are missing – for example, the same person approves an order and payment for that order, or only one person approves contracts.
- Inappropriate life or work styles: Buyers’ lifestyles may be out of keeping with their level in an organisation, they may have an unusually high number of meetings with a supplier, be entertained to an excessive level by that supplier, or a combination of any of these.
While the above three red flags are relatively easy to spot, and telegraph issues of procurement ethics, their apparent absence does not necessarily mean that all is well in your company’s procurement practices.
Ethics Issues Can Be Harder to Detect in Larger Organisations
In a larger organisation, practices that include bribery, coercion, extortion, nepotism, and other unethical procurement methods may be conducted with significant sophistication, including any number of smokescreens and diversions to keep them invisible from scrutiny, and hence profitable for the perpetrators.
Sometimes such a scheme will only come to light when somebody decides to blow the whistle, so any complaint of unethical procurement practices, especially when made by someone from within a winning company in a procurement deal, should be taken seriously and investigated.
Some Possible Signs of Suspicious Procurement Practices
In the absence of any complaint, you will need to keep your eyes open for some of the less obvious red flags, which may indicate unethical procurement deals. These warning signs include:
The splitting of large contracts into many small packages – This is sometimes done to minimise visibility and reduce scrutiny of what may seem trivial, unimportant transactions
High prices or substandard service levels – Either of these issues might indicate that bribery is taking place and receiving financial support. For example, perpetrators might overprice products or services to cover the cost of bribes, or skimp on quality to increase profits, which are then used to subsidise bribes.
Suspicious bidding patterns – If you notice many similarities in the details of competing bids against a request for tender, it could be evidence of a collusive bidding ring.
Sometimes a company will work with others—perhaps its subsidiaries or carefully set-up fake companies—to ensure it wins a sales contract at a favourable rate. However, the effort involved in preparing several “fake” offers can result in telltale copying of details and unlikely similarities between supposedly competitive bids.
The Dangers of Decentralized Procurement
As supply chains lengthen and become increasingly globalized, decentralized purchasing is a growing trend.
If your organisation or enterprise allows department heads or even other staff outside of the procurement team to make purchases, you will need to exercise even more keen vigilance to guard against unethical transactions.
After all, these professionals might not have the same degree of training and understanding of what is “ethical” from a procurement perspective, as those for whom purchasing is a core competency. As mentioned earlier in this article, non-procurement people might have heard stories of the perks afforded to individuals involved in deal-brokering, and be under the misconception that such benefits are acceptable.
Correcting and Avoiding Procurement Ethics Problems
A written procurement ethics policy remains the starting point for raising and maintaining standards in an organisation. Employees at all levels involved in procurement need to know what is expected of them, and a written policy helps resolve any arguments. There are also further conditions if such a policy is to be effective:
- The policy must be as clear and as concise as possible, while still offering sufficient guidance. That means covering general principles and stating specific rules as appropriate. Employees need clear instructions that will let them determine immediately, for instance, if a gift of a ballpoint pen is acceptable because it is below a defined value (perhaps $5), or if the recipient should refuse it because it could constitute an attempt to influence procurement.
- Senior management must endorse the policy and act according to it.
- Employees and stakeholders must be able to easily see and understand the policy. A dedicated webpage on the organisation’s website is one outlet. Systematic inclusion in the annual report is another.
- The policy should receive regular reviews and improvements. New laws and new public opinions will continue to impinge on an organisation’s ethics in procurement.
- Training in applying the policy should be provided, with refresher training at suitable intervals.
Auditing an organisation’s ethics then shows how well the organisation performs both generally and in specific contract negotiations and awards. Audits also help to deter unethical procurement behaviour in the future.
Finally, a clear and valid reporting procedure must exist for employees to report actual and suspected cases of unethical practices or to obtain guidance about dealing with particular situations involving procurement ethics.
The Chain of Ethical Responsibility
Since we first published this article in 2015, supply chains and markets have globalised to such a degree that even some of the smallest businesses have supply chains spanning one or more international borders.
Globalised supply chains present a broader range of ethical risks, including practices that may be far less flagrant than those discussed in this article thus far, and may take place far up the supply chain. .
While these practices may take place a long way away, the business may not be aware of them, and if they become known, may not draw the attention of any enforcement agency, the buying public has a surprisingly long reach.
The practices in question can be anything from the use of animal products derived from endangered species, to child labour. It no longer matters that a business is an unwitting victim, or that the perpetrators are a supplier of a supplier of a supplier. There is an ethical chain of responsibility, and to be considered ethical and socially responsible, businesses must find ways to ensure they are squeaky clean and that no tier in the supply chain can be associated with such practices.
Today’s connected society has become adept at rooting out unethical practices and their links to businesses at home—however tenuous or distant those links might be.
Enterprises and organisations can never assume that doing the right thing in terms of procurement ethics is automatic. Ignorance, doubt, temptation, and fear must be dispersed and replaced by a clear ethical model for all to follow. The advantages will be greater efficiency and value from procurement activities, a better brand image for the organisation concerned, and increased loyalty from end-customers and appreciation from the public in general.
Editor’s Note: We originally published this post in September 2015. It has since been revamped and updated with information that is more comprehensive. The most recent updates were made in August 2020.