Corruption at work – what is it?

Workplace corruption is like a cancer on our society

Corruption at work – what is it?

Is corporate corruption a topic of conversation around your water cooler at work? If not perhaps it should be…

A quick Internet search of “corporate corruption” shows a bevy of articles relating to corrupt workplace practices. Such is the impact on society of this corruption, the Australian Federal Treasurer is quoted as saying “corporate corruption is a cancer that must be hunted down and destroyed[1]. In an article about Unaoil titled “The Bribe Factory”[2], we are told that the investigation “exposed the true extent of corruption within the oil industry, implicating dozens of leading companies, bureaucrats and politicians in a sophisticated global web of bribery and graft”.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development suggests the cost of corruption is more than 5 per cent of global GDP, or $US2.6 trillion[3]. In anyone’s book that is a lot of money!

There are news articles everywhere about corruption, and there are even organisations set up by Governments to combat it such as the “Independent Commission Against Corruption” in New South Wales, Australia.

It is clear there have been, and continue to be, a variety of corrupt working practices in the corporate world in recent decades. A few memorable examples include:

  1. Enron (in 2001) – one of the biggest accounting frauds in history[4]
  2. Siemens AG (in 2011) – bribing government officials[5]
  3. BAE Systems, USA (in 2010) – bribes to an ambassador in a multi-billion-dollar arms deal[5]
  4. Daimler AG (in 2010)[1] – illegal payments to foreign officials[5]

So it is clear corporate corruption is an issue, but what do you consider corruption to be over and above what you have heard in the news? Is it only about the obvious topics such as large-scale fraud, Mafia style crime, illegal activity, bribery, misrepresentation or deliberate mis-selling? Is it only about the giant organisations engaging in money laundering and financial fraud? If so are we all skimming over and thus not looking at wider forms of corruption that are going on under our very noses, such as those seemingly small misdemeanours?

What about the moments of dishonesty, or the so-called ‘white lies’ we all see every day? Aren’t these also acts of corruption?

On delving deeper in discussing corruption, it becomes apparent that it is far more prevalent than we may choose to realise, and that when we are bystanders we are in fact colluding with the corruption. When we are dishonest with ourselves, we blind ourselves not only to what corruption is but also to the corruption around us – as our corruption ‘antennae’ are dulled.

Small corruption leads to big corruption, and with a few moments of pondering the small corruptions are without a doubt rampant in all work organisations. This may include:

  • Using work resources – photocopying, taking stationery home, etc.
  • Showing statistics and figures for our part of the business that only show the ‘good’ results
  • In a meeting making a general opaque comment to say ‘yes I am on track with that project’, knowing that you actually have a mountain to climb to get it done
  • Not speaking up when a colleague gets berated for something where you know you also had a part to play?
  • Not speaking up when an Executive is being bullying or abusive
  • Staying quiet as a bystander when you see something that is simply not right?

This begs the question as to how willing are we as individuals to see corruption at work:

Are we unwilling to see the corruption around us, and is this in itself corruption?

Are we willing to see it, but then don’t speak up about it, and is this also corruption?

One of the tensions we live with in our workplaces is that we are actually all deeply sensitive, and we do feel, and see dishonesty and abuse, and corruption on many levels, yet we don't talk about it, or act to bring a change. We are often under the illusion that it is someone else’s job to fix it.

If we truly want to look at corruption, one place to start is with some good old fashioned, honest ‘down and dirty’ conversations about how the way we work actually is, about the abuse we see and feel, the corruption we see and feel, and our part in it.

Without judgement or criticism, by bringing back a real-ness we may find that some if not much of our organisational ills of today lessen in intensity, and we may also find that we can come to some shared understanding and more so some shared solutions on how to work another way.


  • [1]

    Inquiry sought on corporate corruption. (2015). NewsComAu. Retrieved 21 August 2016, from

  • [2]

    The Bribe Factory: The company that corrupted the global oil industry. (2016). Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 21 August 2016, from

  • [3]

    Australian firms too 'complacent' about corruption. (2015). ABC News. Retrieved 21 August 2016, from

  • [4]

    BBC News (2002) Enron Scandal at a Glance. August.

  • [5]

    Fiscal Times (2011) The Ten Largest Global Business Corruption Cases

Filed under

CorruptionWork stress

  • By Heather Pope, Corporate Executive

  • Photography: Clayton Lloyd