Diagnosing and Treating Bribery in Public Organizations


Bribery. Corruption. These terms have strong connotations, inspiring images of high-level conspiracy and backroom deals. But bribery can occur at any level of an organization, from front-line workers to powerful executives. And no matter where it occurs, it can contribute to the erosion of trust in public institutions, which can have negative downstream effects on society.

Preventing bribery in public organizations is paramount. But how do you stop it once it starts?



Diana Dakhlallah is an Assistant Professor in Organizational Behavior at the Desautels Faculty of Management. Her work focuses on corruption and misconduct in health organizations. In a recent field study, she tested an intervention in Moroccan public hospitals that could help curtail the exchange of bribes between patients and healthcare workers.

Her intervention mobilized the concept of social accountability (rather than more punitive, top-down deterrence methods) to discourage bribery in maternity wards.

“[Bribes] are in fact understood as not sanctioned, they’re not socially approved-of,” explained Professor Dakhlallah in an interview on the Delve podcast.

Workers who accepted bribes did so in secret and were never quite comfortable with the act. So, reputational concerns that arise from the threat of making their involvement in bribery visible should, in this case, have a powerful effect.

Professor Dakhlallah tested her intervention in two groups of maternity wards: higher incidence wards (where almost half of patients reported paying bribes) and lower incidence wards (where 25 – 30 percent of patients reported paying bribes).

She asked patients across hospitals about how they accessed care, only to discover that maternity patients reported the highest rates of bribing. She then shared with maternity workers a report containing statistics about bribery’s incidence in their ward. In that same report, she notified them that the ward level statistics about bribery will be further broken down by healthcare worker group and shared hospital wide.

Under this threat of social exposure, the high incidence and lower incidence wards reacted differently. Healthcare workers in higher incidence wards dramatically cut back on taking bribes. Healthcare workers in the lower incidence wards did not change their levels of involvement in bribery. These results suggest that maternity workers tolerate some bribery in their wards, but not too much. And, beyond a certain threshold, they internalize the negative social consequences of being involved in bribery, explained Dakhlallah.

Curbing unethical conduct in public institutions

While Dakhlallah’s study focused on bribery, her work holds lessons for public organizations more globally.

To build an effective intervention, she explained, organizations need to move beyond sectoral and national data and drill down to the organizational level. In her case, bribery’s incidence varied from hospital to hospital, and even from ward to ward. Aggregate data, while useful, can gloss over these important parts of the story.

Next is to determine why unethical behavior occurs. Bribery can occur for many reasons, and each will respond to a different intervention. Understanding the environments that foster unethical behavior will help identify root causes.

Then it’s time to create custom solutions to the issue. If bribery occurs because front-line workers are underpaid, higher salaries could be a solution. Or, at the very least, organizations can restructure their work to match their wages.

There’s a lot we still don’t know about how bribery works in public organizations, let alone other kinds of unethical behavior. But addressing it is essential to the health of public institutions.

“A lot of our social, political, and economic lives are organized through state institutions,” said Professor Dakhlallah. “Trying to improve the function of these state institutions is fundamental to what I think of as good government.”

To learn more about Professor Dakhlallah’s work, listen to her interview with host Saku Mantere on the Delve podcast, available on all major podcasting platforms.

This article is written by Eric Dicaire.  This episode of the Delve podcast was hosted by Saku Mantere, produced by Robyn Fadden, and mixed by Eric Dicaire. Original music by Saku Mantere.

Delve is the official thought leadership platform of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. Subscribe to the Delve podcast on all major podcast platforms, including Apple podcasts and Spotify, and follow Delve on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

Diana Dakhlallah
Assistant Professor, Organizational Behavior