Nearly half of all workers across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and India think bribery and corruption are acceptable ways to survive an economic downturn, according to a report published by professional services firm Ernst & Young on Tuesday.
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In E&Y's annual fraud survey, 48 percent of the 3,459 respondents said either offering cash, entertainment or personal gifts and services to retain or win clients was justifiable, or thought it was alright to deliberate misstate a company's financial performance.
Furthermore, more than 40 percent of employees at board and senior manager level said that sales or cost numbers had been manipulated by their company. This included reporting revenue early to meet short-term financial targets, under-reporting costs to meet budget targets, and requiring customers to buy unnecessary stock to meet sales targets.
David Stulb, the head of fraud investigation and dispute services at E&Y, said the findings were in-line with both Europe-specific and worldwide surveys conducted in 2011 and 2012.
"Our survey shows that to find growth and improved performance in this environment, an alarming number appear to be comfortable with or aware of unethical conduct... Given the current challenging market conditions, companies face sustained pressure to meet growth and profit expectations. In this environment, some inevitably succumb to unethical behavior," said Stulb, who led the 2013 report.
In a red light for companies eager to expand into emerging countries, two-thirds of employees based in high-growth markets said bribery and corruption was widespread, compared with around one-third in developed countries. In Kenya, for instance, almost all employees thought corruption and bribery was endemic, with emerging Europe and other African countries also scoring highly for irregular practices.
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"The results also serve as a warning for multinational companies with subsidiaries in, for example, India (where 54 percent think financial performance is often exaggerated), Russia (61 percent) or Nigeria (68 percent). These businesses have good reason to look critically at what is being reported back to the center from other jurisdictions," said Stulb.
Furthermore, one-in-six employees fear that following their companies' compliance policies too closely could hamper competitiveness.
"Employees falsely perceive there to be a choice: implement compliance policies to the letter and risk losing opportunities, or take the risk of non-compliance and keep a competitive edge. Typical remuneration mechanisms are likely to encourage the unethical choice; employees rarely get a pay rise or promotion simply for complying with policy," said Stulb.
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"In the context of widespread pay cuts, the temptation to achieve results through bribery and corruption is even greater."
--By CNBC's Katy Barnato
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image: © Camera Eye Photography