FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog

September 26, 2014

West Side Story and GSK In China – Board Oversight and Tone in the Middle

West Side Story IIYesterday, I celebrated the anniversary of one of America’s cultural lows. But today, I am extremely pleased to open with exactly the opposite, that being one of America’s greatest gifts to the performing arts. For on this day in 1957, the musical West Side Story premiered on Broadway. There are so many facets to one of the great, even greatest, works of musical theater. Leonard Bernstein penned the score, Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics, Jerome Robbins choreographed the dance and the story was by Arthur Laurents, inspired by Romeo and Juliet.

There are many great songs, dances and moments in the play. Most of us (at least of my age) outside New York were introduced to the play via television where it ran for one showing in 1971. The show never toured until the 2000s. When I finally got to see the stage production I was absolutely blown away. I had never seen anything like and it and I will never forget the 5-counter point singing by Tony, Maria, Anita, Bernardo and the Sharks, and Riff and the Jets, as they all anticipate the events to come that night in the song Tonight’s Quintet. The show truly is one of America’s gems.

I thought about the continuing appeal of West Side Story as a musical and why the story continues to resonate with the American people when I continued to consider some of the lessons learned from the GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK) matter in China. Today’s areas for reflection should be the role of a company’s Board of Directors and the second is the ‘tone in the middle’. While we have not heard from the GSK Board on this case, it has become clear that the GSK Board was aware of both the anonymous whistleblower allegations and the release of the tape of the GSK China Country Manager and his girlfriend. One of the lessons learned from the GSK scandal is that a Board must absolutely take a more active oversight role not only when specific allegations of bribery and corruption are brought forward but also when companies are operating in high risk environments. Further how can a company move its message of doing business ethically and in compliance down the employee chain.

In a NACD Directorship article, entitled “Corruption in China and Elsewhere Demands Board Oversight”, authors Eric Zwisler and Dean Yoost noted that as “Boards are ultimately responsible for risk oversight” any Board of a company with operations in China “needs to have a clear understanding of its duties and responsibilities under the FCPA and other international laws, such as the U.K. Bribery Act”. Why should China be on the radar of Boards? The authors reported, “20 percent of FCPA enforcement actions in the past five years have involved business conduct in China. The reputational and economic ramifications of misinterpreting these duties and responsibilities can have a long-lasting impact on the economic and reputation of the company.”

The authors understand that corruption can be endemic in China. They wrote, “Local organizations in China are exceedingly adept at appearing compliant while hiding unacceptable business practices. The board should be aware that a well-crafted compliance program must be complemented with a thorough understanding of frontline business practices and constant auditing of actual practices, not just documentation.” Further, “the management cadence of monitoring and auditing should be visible to the board.” All of the foregoing would certainly apply to GSK and its China operations.

Moreover, the FCPA Guidance makes clear that resources and their allocation are an important part of any best practices compliance program. So if that risk is perceived to be high in a country such as China, the Board should follow the prescription in the Guidance, which states “the amount of resources devoted to compliance will depend on the company’s size, complexity, industry, geographical reach, and risks associated with the business. In assessing whether a company has reasonable internal controls, DOJ and SEC typically consider whether the company devoted adequate staffing and resources to the compliance program given the size, structure, and risk profile of the business.”

To help achieve these goals, the authors suggested a list of questions that they believe every director should ask about a company’s business in China.

  • How is “tone at the top” established and communicated?
  • How are business practice risks assessed?
  • Are effective standards, policies and procedures in place to address these risks?
  • What procedures are in place to identify and mitigate fraud, theft, and corruption?
  • What local training is conducted on business practices and is it effective?
  • Are incentives provided to promote the correct behaviors?
  • How is the detection of improper behavior monitored and audited?
  • How is the effectiveness of the compliance program reviewed and initiated?
  • If a problem is identified, how is an independent and thorough investigation assured?

Third parties generally present the most risk under a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) compliance program and are believed (at least anecdotally) to comprise over 90 percent of reported FCPA cases, which subsequently involve the use of third-party intermediaries such as agents or consultants. But this is broader than simply third party agents because any business opportunity in China will require some type of business relationship.

One of the major failings of the GSK Board was that it apparently did not understand the actual business practices that the company was engaging in through its China business unit. While $500MM may not have been a material monetary figure for the Board to consider; the payment of such an amount to any third party or group of third parties, such as Chinese travel agencies, should have been raised to the Board. All of this leads me to believe that the GSK Board was not sufficiently engaged. While one might think a company which had received a $3bn fine and was under a Corporate Integrity Agreement (CIA) for its marketing sins might have sufficient Board attention; perhaps legal marketing had greater Board scrutiny than doing business in compliance with the FCPA or UK Bribery Act. The Board certainly did not seem to understand the potential financial and reputational impact of a bribery and corruption matter arising in China. Perhaps they do now but, for the rest of us, I think the clear lesson to be learned is that a Board must increase oversight of its China operations from the anti-corruption perspective.

GSK Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Sir Andrew Witty has certainly tried to say all of the right things during the GSK imbroglio on China. But did that message really get down into to the troops at GSK China? Moreover, did that message even get to middle management, such as the GSK leadership in China? Apparently not so, one of the lessons learned is moving the Olympian Pronouncements of Sir Andrew down to lower levels on his company. Just how important is “Tone at the Top”? Conversely, what does it say to middle management when upper management practices the age-old parental line of “Don’t do as I do; Do as I say”? In his article entitled, “Ethics and the Middle Manager: Creating “Tone in The Middle” Kirk O. Hanson, listed eight specific actions that top executives could engage in which demonstrate a company’s and their personnel’s commitment to ethics and compliance. The actions he listed were:

  1. Top executives must themselves exhibit all the “tone at the top” behaviors, including acting ethically, talking frequently about the organization’s values and ethics, and supporting the organization’s and individual employee’s adherence to the values.
  2. Top executives must explicitly ask middle managers what dilemmas arise in implementing the ethical commitments of the organization in the work of that group.
  3. Top executives must give general guidance about how values apply to those specific dilemmas.
  4. Top executives must explicitly delegate resolution of those dilemmas to the middle managers.
  5. Top executives must make it clear to middle managers that their ethical performance is being watched as closely as their financial performance.
  6. Top executives must make ethical competence and commitment of middle managers a part of their performance evaluation.
  7. The organization must provide opportunities for middle managers to work with peers on resolving the hard cases.
  8. Top executives must be available to the middle managers to discuss/coach/resolve the hardest cases.

What about at the bottom, as in remember those China unit employees who claimed they were owed bonuses because their bosses had instructed them to pay bribes? Well if your management instructs you to pay bribes that is a very different problem. But if your company’s issue is how to move the message of compliance down to the bottom, Dawn Lomer, Managing Editor at i-Sight Software, provided some concrete suggestions in an article in the SCCE magazine, entitled “An ethical corporate culture goes beyond the code”, where she wrote that that the unofficial message which a company sends to its employees “is just as powerful – if not more powerful – than any messages carried in the code of conduct.” Lomer suggested that a company use “unofficial channels” by which your company can convey and communicate its message regarding doing business in an ethical manner and “influence employee behavior across the board.” Her suggestions were:

  1. Reward for Integrity – Lomer writes that the key is to reward employees for doing business in an ethical manner and that such an action “sends a powerful message without saying a word.”
  2. The three-second ethics rule – It is important that senior management not only consistently drives home the message of doing business ethically but they should communicate that message in a short, clear values statement.
  3. Environmental cues – Simply the idea that a company is providing oversight on doing business ethically can be enough to modify employee behavior.
  4. Control the images – It is not all about winning but conducting business, as it should be done.
  5. Align Messages – you should think about the totality of the messages that your company is sending out to its employees regarding doing business and make sure that all these messages are aligned in a way that makes clear your ethical corporate culture clear. 

The GSK case will be in the public eye for many months to come. Both the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO) and US authorities have open investigations into the company. Just as the five counter-point singing or the rooftop symphonic dance scene to the song America demonstrates the best of that art form; you can draw lessons from GSK’s miss-steps in China now for implementing or enhancing your anti-corruption compliance program going forward now.

And while you are ending your week of considering GSK and its lessons learned for your compliance program, crank up your speakers to 11 and listen to some five counter-point singing the movie version of the Tonight Quintet, by clicking here.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2014

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