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Bribes and gifts: know the difference

When doing business abroad, or with foreign clients, it is important to know if you are expected to give a gift, or if you are being asked for a bribe, but it can be confusing to differentiate between the two.

bribery vs. gifts

bribery vs. gifts

Greasing the wheels of progress

In every country, there can be wheels that need to be greased to spur work progress along. As to not impeded a deal or business relationship, there comes a time in every global professional’s life where you will come face to face with differentiating between a bribe and a gift. It is easy to get the two muddled and even refer to them interchangeably. In my international dealings, I have found three keystones for determining if a gift is merely a gift, or if it can be misconstrued as a bribe.

Tip one: listen to your intuition

Let your gut guide you. Most Westerns have a pretty staunch view of what constitutes bribery and many judge from a feelings perspective. We tend to offer gifts when it feels appropriate to do so. Use the same baseline judgement you would use in your home country when offering gifts in a foreign conuntry. This comfort level can be based on the type of business relationship that exists, the hierarchy of titles and the type of gift offered.

Tip two: know the expectations

Knowing the expectation of a gift or its purpose can help you determine if it is, in fact, a bribe. There are myriad euphemisms for bribes, so it’s small wonder some Westerners have been accused of paying a bribe when they thought they were paying a “transportation fee” or “extra weight toll.” In China, I’ve heard of many instances of freight forwarding companies asking for “advances of insurance” of a shipment. The best advice is to use your understanding of the terminology in your industry to ascertain the reason behind the fee/tax/tip.

Tip three: company policies

Before you go overseas, be sure to refer to your company’s HR/employee handbook or any other code of conduct outline. The old adage “when in Rome” rarely applies in the case of gifting and bribery. When in doubt, stick to your home country’s policy. The majority of Chinese companies are well aware of the anti-bribery stance of Western companies and tend to act accordingly. Remember, it is acceptable to say I can’t receive this gift based on our company policy.

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The takeaway

Most countries in the G-20 (or The Group of Twenty Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors) have some sort of overarching governmental or economic policy against bribes. China’s anti-corruption stance, adopted in the late 1980s – early 1990s, has now taken on many forms including an anti-bribery act. It is imperative in this flatten, more globalized economy to know the difference and act accordingly. Many foreign expats in China believe that while China has lofty ideals about anti-corruption, anti-bribery and full transparency, it is up to individuals (not just government programs) to make these policies reality.

Written By

Monica Moffitt, founder and Principal Cultural Consultant at Tianfen Consulting, Inc., has traveled the world and enjoys linguistics and all things culture. Having split her career between project management and business analytics, Monica merges logic, fluency in Chinese and creativity in her new role as cultural consultant. She received a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies/Chinese from Vanderbilt University and a Master of Business Administration (International Management and Marketing) from University of Texas at Dallas.

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