In all the controversy over Gary Lineker, I missed another football-related story last week when it first broke. Barcelona, the legendary Spanish football club, are in trouble. Following a tax investigation into Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira – a former vice-president of Spain’s referees’ committee – and a company he owns, it turns out Barca paid 8.4 m euros (£7.4 million) between 2001 and 2018 to Negreira and his firm.
That half a million a year was supposedly for consulting services. The explanation is that Negreira was advising Barcelona on how their players should behave around different referees. Barcelona say that his firm, Dasnil 95, which it described as “an external technical consultant”, was engaged to compile video reports related to professional referees “with the aim of complementing the information required by the coaching staff”. It added that contracting the reports was “a habitual practice among professional clubs”.
Well, we haven’t seen too many other clubs as yet admitting that they did follow the same practice, so Barca may well be in trouble. And even if that was as far as it went, it doesn’t look good, as the club was trying to gain what most would consider to be an unfair advantage. But of course there is speculation that the payments were even more “corrupt” than that, being made with the intent to buy favourable treatment from referees for the club. It doesn’t help that the contracts with Dasnil 95 were verbal and the lack of formal records suggests the parties were not keen on transparency!
As the BBC reported, a Barcelona court heard “that Barca, former club officials and Negreira had been indicted for “corruption”, “breach of trust” and “false business records”. These lawsuits, brought by the Barcelona public prosecutor’s office, target the club, as well as former presidents Josep Maria Bartomeu and Sandro Rosell”.
Whatever the outcome of this case, it highlights an important point that is highly relevant to all of us when it comes to corruption and inappropriate corporate behaviour. It is not just the direct intent behind the action that matters; how it looks and is perceived by others is also important.
I may be absolutely certain that my decision making about a current procurement decision is fair and unbiased. I can swear on my life that I have no preference as to which of the short-listed bidders win. But if colleagues see me having dinner at the £250-quid-a-head Fat Duck with the sales director of one of those firms … maybe we were discussing matters totally unrelated to the current competition, but how does it look? It looks bad, and that is Barcelona’s problem here. Their actions look really, really bad.
I checked on the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply’s Code of Conduct, and was pleased to see this. Members should; “ Avoid any private or professional activity that would create a conflict of interest or the appearance of impropriety…”
The key word there is “appearance.” Just telling me that of course you are honest and decent is not enough; if something would not look right, then don’t do it.
But of course, there are difficult and grey areas. I have in my dim and distant past accepted corporate hospitality from some suppliers. I justified it as – for instance – an opportunity to meet a supplier’s CEO, who I might not get to see in the normal course of business as a medium-sized customer. I played in a Virgin Airlines golf day once when I was trying to use Virgin as a lever to get a better deal from BA, who did not want to negotiate. I wanted to speak to Richard Branson directly and thought the golf was my best chance. However, he seemed much more interested in talking to his lovely stewardesses who were there as hosts, rather than mingling with the customers, and I played really badly too. Served me right…
Some organisations have imposed very tight ethical rules in terms of behaviour with suppliers, which is admirable but maybe can go too far at times. I do think that if I’m visiting a supplier’s factory or offices, and they offer me lunch in their cafeteria or a sandwich at the local pub, I’m not going to get hung up on who pays for that.
I remember visiting a packaging factory in Belgium (the trip paid for by my own employer) and being given a little ashtray as a thanks for coming so far to see the firm. It featured a picture of the factory, and was made by the local pottery, so it would have seemed silly and ungrateful to refuse it, even though I have never smoked a single cigarette in my life. It raised 50p at the charity shop later… But at least those policies that are absolutely crystal clear about hospitality, gifts and so on have the benefit that no transgressor can claim they didn’t understand the rules.
Anyway, I think Barcelona are in trouble here unless they can show that paying for that sort of service really is commonplace amongst other clubs. And in our own lives, it is worth remembering that if it looks wrong, sounds wrong, or feels wrong… then it almost certainly is wrong.