When rules are not enough to curb corruption

Even in the world’s least-corrupt countries, recent scandals have led to a search for new ways to appeal to individual integrity as a solution.

People in the European country of Malta hold a vigil on April 16 marking 18 months since the assassination of anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

In global rankings of the least-corrupt countries, much of Europe has long stood out, especially in the Nordic nations. They have strong institutions and rule of law. Yet recent scandals in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Austria have triggered a rethink of what really deters corruption. Punishment alone, concluded a Transparency International report last year, can seldom motivate people to be proactive in preventing corruption.

To detect corruption, the report states, people who know about it must take action and cooperate with authorities. Yet such people who “face a sanctions-only approach may be inclined to refuse such cooperation. In such situations, actors may fear disproportionate punishment, and prefer to cover up problems.”

An alternative approach, now being adopted in many institutions, is to appeal to people’s integrity, reinforcing the idea that each individual’s conscience can make a difference. Many workplaces, for example, hand out “integrity awards” to employees who have lifted up ethical norms and behavior.

New data from the Nordic Business Ethics Network backs up this approach. In a survey of employees in Finland, Norway, and Sweden, more than 90% said an ethical working place with transparent and fair practices is more important than a salary increase or a promotion. Yes, earning more money matters less than working in a moral environment. The survey’s authors say honest dialogue, respect, and a speak-up culture are key to encouraging people to act out of integrity.

One of Europe’s best examples of a rapid shift in thinking about corruption took place in Spain in 2013. After a scandal hit the ruling People’s Party, a social movement known as Indignados began to demand reforms in politics and government. To many voters, the issue of corruption is now as important as the economy.

This collective moral awakening, writes Spanish researcher Elisa Elliott Alonso, marked a sea change in how Spaniards think about corruption. “The previous acceptance of corruption as a despicable but inevitable part of politics morphed into the view that corruption represents a serious moral degeneration of the whole political system.”

Rules, codes of conducts, and punishment are indeed not enough to curb corruption. Individual integrity must be nurtured. Or, as the Nordic Business Ethics Network puts it, “When considering the issues of right and wrong, we should more often look in the mirror rather than in a lawbook.”

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