The man waiting for me in the meeting room was an unexpected visitor. He introduced himself as the head of a government department and welcomed me to the Czech Republic. He had brought a “friend”.

“You are going to have meet your budget, but I can give you all the government work you need”, he said with a meaningful look. “I just want you to employ this girl.”

He pointed to the young woman who sat opposite. She was beautiful, breathtakingly so, and I suspected she was to be a “spy” for the government. Working on behalf of British and US lenders, I was leading a team investigating cases of fraud that often wound their way back to organised crime and government figures.

I was just a few months into my posting to Eastern Europe and I knew to be wary. This is a country where surveys show two thirds of Czech citizens (66%) believe that most, or almost all, public officials are corrupt.

I left the room, grabbed the arm of my direct report and said, “I think I have just been offered a bribe”.

My first strategy was to make the problem go away by making it clear that everything was to be “above board”.

I walked back into the meeting room. “Leave it with me”, I said. “Look, it sounds interesting, send me her CV and we will see where she may fit in the organisation.”

I had made no commitment, but had asked him to “make it official”. But that was not the end of it. No CV arrived, but three weeks later he was back, unsmiling this time.

“If you don’t employ her, you won’t get any government work at all”, he threatened. I thanked him, said I understood what he was talking about and asked him once more to send the CV. He left without shaking my hand.

A senior leader within the organisation I worked for pulled me up the following day to berate me for being so stupid. Bribes and corruption are a ubiquitous part of the business environment in some countries.

While the organisation might have seen a brown paper bag full of cash as corruption, “scratching each other’s back” in this way was regarded as mere facilitation.

It came to me right then, that this was a real turning point.

With 20 years in the NSW Police behind me, I thought I was a bit of a tough guy, but I knew my life was about to change if I did not change my mind about hiring the “spy”. This could be a dangerous situation because of the kind of people involved in corruption.

It became clear that I had become a problem to the people running the Prague office. At every executive meeting, the others would roll their eyes when I spoke. Their attitude was that we had to get the business, no matter what. Eventually I had to leave before my contract was up.

Looking back through the intervening years, are there things I would have done differently? Perhaps I should have tried being upfront with the CEO – however, he was new to the job and was part of the “giggle”.

I thought at the time that it was better to leave the matter “intangible”, to not start a fight when I was the only Australian in the office.

I had let them know where I stood – a strategy that worked well in the Police Force where, if you were known as a straight shooter, people wouldn’t approach you with corrupt offers.

I could have done more research to find out what was the normal way of conducting business there. I knew there was a lot of corruption in the country, but I had thought the organisation I was working for was above that. It wasn’t. It was part of it.

I could have made my ethical standards clear to the CEO and management team before I started. If I had known their attitude, I would not have taken the job. If they had known mine, they wouldn’t have hired me.

My advice to others in this situation is to bring the matter out into the open, but think about your personal safety. Make sure you have a good exit plan.

An interesting thing about the culture of corruption is it can be invisible. If you didn’t look out the window into the Prague winter, you would think you were in Australia. The building was the same, the people were the same. So, you could be seduced into thinking you could operate the same way there as you do in Australia, but the culture is so very different.


This article was originally written for The Ethics Alliance. Find out more about this corporate membership program. Already a member? Log in to the membership portal for more content and tools here.