Assume you are a CPO recruiting for a senior procurement role. The person will have some power in terms of choosing suppliers and negotiating contracts, although others will be involved too (because you understand the corruption and fraud risks around concentrating that sort of power in a single person).
You then discover that this individual recently paid a fine of several million pounds to the tax authorities because of a transaction from a few years ago. The tax authorities found that the individual had managed their affairs in a manner that crossed the line from “tax avoidance” into “tax evasion”, even if it was not deliberately criminal evasion. But when you tackle the person about it, they explain it was simply “careless” and they had no intention of doing anything illegal.
I mean, they tell you, we’ve all done it. You just carelessly set up a new business but then register the shares in your father’s name, offshore of course, then set up a complex process so that you can still benefit personally from the value of those shares. And when they’re sold, you avoid capital gains tax. Just careless. (You also discover he made a lot of money working for two oil companies that had an “interesting” history, including senior management fraud and corruption – although he wasn’t involved in that personally).
How do you feel as CPO? I would suggest this person would not be employed. There would be questions about their personal ethics and whether they could be trusted with the organisation’s money, let alone the reputational risk to the organisation and indeed to you if the CEO finds out who you are employing.
Now let’s consider another case. Another senior procurement executive is about to award a contract to a single consultant to carry out a very sensitive strategic assignment at Board level. There are a handful of individuals – from different firms – in the running. Your executive makes the choice and the consultant starts work. You then discover that a few weeks before the appointment, your executive asked the chosen consultant if they could help him get a loan of £800,000. The consultant was indeed helpful, and linked your exec up with someone who could make that loan.
Where do we start with this? As the CPO, you might wonder first of all why your exec needs that loan – they’re paid a decent six figure salary, after all. That rings alarm bells. A gambling / drug habit to finance, maybe? Blackmail? Not good for someone in a responsible position handling the firm’s money.
But on the core issue, I think you would fire them, or at the very least put them on a final warning (if the internal policy is not strong enough to support a dismissal). It was totally inappropriate to ask a potential supplier for favours at any time, in particular when you are in the process of making a contract decision. Personally, I would not be able to trust this individual again, so sacking would be my preferred option.
You might have a little more sympathy with the consultant. They were put in a difficult position, and all they did was make a connection – it is not like they handed over cash. (However, you do feel a little awkward when you discover the consultant previously donated a lot of money to help restore your firm’s sports and social club …)
But you have to tell the supplier that the competitive process will need to be run again and unfortunately they will be excluded. They should have politely declined to help and really should have blown the whistle on the exec and come to you as the CPO with the story.
The case studies here are of course parallels to the stories of Nadim Zahawi, Conservative party chairman, and Boris Johnson, ex-Prime Minister, and his dealings with the Chairman of the BBC, who he appointed after asking him to help Johnson get a loan. To make matters worse, Zahawi was actually Chancellor (finance minister) at the time he was being fined. He was the ultimate boss of the tax authorities!
So we’ve got into a situation in the UK where the people who are running the country have ethical standards that we would not tolerate in a mid-level procurement manager. The feeling that the rules do not really apply to them, personal disregard for ethical behaviour (remember the long history of Johnson’s many children, deserted wives, and lovers having abortions), a lack of care about conflicts of interest – they are all character traits that would make us run a mile if we saw them in a potential recruit.
This is not just a rant against these individuals. The wider issue is that it sets a terrible example. Young – and not so young – business people, including those involved in procurement, look at the standards of behaviour and think “well, if that’s OK for our leaders, surely I can accept a trip to the Grand Prix from that IT firm who want our business”. Or perhaps feel it’s OK to award a contract to a firm on the basis of a nod and a wink that there’ll be a nice job next year in that business on twice the salary.
Once standards start slipping in an organisation or country, it’s tough to turn things around. My feeling at the moment is that the UK is rapidly sliding down the league table in terms of national corruption, ethics and standards of behaviour in public life. When we see this sort of thing going on in Nigeria, Turkmenistan or Myanmar, we shake our heads and say, “what a corrupt, backward country that is – look at the crooks and chancers they have in charge!”
Well, here we are.