To bribe or not to bribe?

Presented with the opportunity to win a large installation through providing a bribe compelled me to make a decision. Not then. Not now. Not ever.

To bribe or not to bribe? by Nancy Knowlton

A number of years ago we were deeply involved in some international business dealings. Our business had been scaling up significantly for a sustained period of time, and it was gratifying to see the new product concept that we had pioneered become a key staple in classrooms around the world. Our growth was being driven by some large, key markets that we were carefully and diligently working with people and events. Increasingly, we were enjoying some successful implementations in jurisdictions that had come through some small-scale proofs of concept.

I traveled extensively at the time, meeting with both influencers and decision makers, literally all who would be involved in the decision to buy our products in volume. They wanted to know that we had a substantial company that would be around to service them, not just make the sale. They wanted us to grow with them as much as we wanted them to grow their adoptions with us.

A different agenda

On one visit I started to get a hint that the officials talking to me had an agenda beyond just a large-scale adoption of our products. At first it was just a feeling, but as the conversations progressed it was impossible for me to come to any other conclusion. While never described as such, I was being warmed up to pay a bribe if we wanted to win a particular piece of business.

It was my first experience with this type of situation, but I didn’t have to think long or hard about the course of action. I could not and would not pay a bribe, but my mind raced furiously over how to win the business without making the requested payment. I chose to delay to give me time to carefully consider the situation. In the back of my mind there was a slight possibility that I had misinterpreted the signals and that it was not a request for a bribe at all. I left for home having committed to a call the following week with a legal and financial person involved in the purchase decision.


On the call, all doubt was dispelled about the nature of the request. I was asked if our company had an entity in a named country through which we could make the sale. When I asked why, the following explanation was offered: “Imagine a turnip truck and that turnip truck is driving down the road. Some of the turnips fall off the truck.” Apparently, it was better if the turnips fell off the truck in the named country. I now had a clear picture – a bribe was being requested. I responded in the way in which the question had been asked, advising that I didn’t actually understand turnips and we didn’t have an entity in the named country.

No doubt

I have never regretted the decision that I made, and I would make this same decision in the face of another request for a bribe. No amount of business could change my mind and it shouldn’t change anyone’s. Here’s my train of thought:

  • Bribes are illegal and serve to destroy an open and fair business system
  • Winning and losing business must be done playing by the rules
  • It is irrelevant if others don’t play by the same rules and limitations, either because their business regulations allow it or they can get away with doing so
  • Sleeping at night with a clear conscience is to be highly valued

To paraphrase the musing of Shakespeare – to bribe or not to bribe, that is the question. In my mind, there is no question. Not then. Not now. Not ever.


We competed hard for the business, and we lost. It was a hard loss, because we were the clear global number 1 in the product category at the time. Our product had been well-accepted in the region and customers were clearly happy with us. I have no idea what others did on the bid – I only know about our actions. We gave no indication that we would pay a bribe. It was clear and final.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.