On Port Fees & Bribes – “Ask the Ethicist – Brazil Edition”

The following was originally published in the American Society of São Paulo’s September 2014 newsletter, the Forum:
The way we handle ethical or moral dilemmas at work is generally determined by our organization’s culture. There are policies, HR, codes of conduct, and legal teams to help us figure these out. Outside the work environment, moral dilemmas become murkier and as a guest in Brazil, we sometimes ask ourselves if something is right or wrong “within” the Brazil context. And so, we launch the Forum’s new column: “Ask the Ethicist – Brazil Edition.”
To kick us off, we’ve invited some AmSoc friends to share their ethical dilemmas, one of which is asked and answered below.

Dear Ethicist,
After months of waiting, my container finally arrived in Santos and the company lawyer said we could either make a payment to expedite its customs clearance or wait potentially for months for the shipment to clear. Though I would be provided with a receipt, I worry that this could be a violation of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or the U.K. Bribery Act. What is the right thing to do?
Signed,
Apartamento Vazio

*****
Dear Apartamento Vazio,
You are right to be concerned. It’s tough to say for certain without knowing more details related to your situation, but a payment to expedite your container’s processing through Brazilian customs could be seen as a bribe. Even through a third party and with a receipt, it is a crime to bribe foreign government officials.
Every country criminalizes bribery of public officials. If your company does business in the U.S. or U.K., it may fall under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices or U.K. Bribery Acts. These laws hold companies responsible for the actions of foreign subsidiaries and foreign employees and all other third parties such as agents, consultants, distributors, and joint venture partners.
It’s clear from your question that you believe this may be an improper payment. Either way, it is important to trust your gut. If it feels wrong, you probably shouldn’t do it. Even if it were legal to make the payment, would it be right for your container to be cleared before others who have been waiting longer?
~The Ethicist

Send your ethical dilemmas and questions by email to erica@ericawinter.com. This column was written by Erica Winter, an International Business Ethics Consultant from Washington, D.C.

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