In 2012 I was invited to speak at a conference in Brussels, Belgium. The event was held at the European Parliament building and I was honored to run a workshop for a student’s association.
I had never been to Brussels before, so I thought it was a great opportunity to taste Belgian beer and eat fries and mussels too!
I landed on a rainy evening, rushed my way to the taxi line, and jumped on the first yellow cab I could get. We headed straight towards my hotel. It was one of those old school taxis with a sign on the roof and a big meter on top of the driver’s dashboard.
The journey was short. In just fifteen minutes we arrived at the hotel. The meter was showing “11 Euro” so I prepared the cash right before leaving the car in the pouring rain.
However, the driver said: “Twenty twenty-five, ok?” in a strong french accent.
I did not understand so I asked again: “How much?”
“Twenty twenty-five” he repeated.
The meter was still showing a large red eleven on it, and I was confused.
The driver turned my way, and explained: “I give you a receipt for 25 Euro, you pay me 20 Euro.” I timidly offered a twenty Euro bill, getting just a piece of paper in return.
Later that night in the hotel, while I was eating some takeaway fries washing them down with a can of Belgian beer, I tried to wrap my head around what had just happened.
I was tired and still confused. Then it hit me.
I was wearing a suit, landing at the airport, and headed to a business hotel. During the ride, I had asked the taxi driver if the European Parliament was close enough to walk there in the morning. In the driver’s eyes, I was a politician or part of the entourage of a member of the parliament. In any case, I was traveling at someone else’s expense.
With his game, he was getting 9 Euros more than the meter was showing, and still, I would “earn” 5 euros by submitting my expense report.
Before that night in Brussels, I was never offered to cheat on my expense reports. The driver was so confident in his offering, making me feel almost too thick for not getting his point at the first shot. He must have played that game so often that it was standard practice to him.
And this is how corruption starts. It all begins with a padded receipt and an individual with low integrity, or just tired enough not to think things through.
How is it possible that people who dedicate their lives to public service are sometimes caught red-handed cheating on taxi receipts, or hotel bookings?
Have you noticed how big cases of corruption often start from a couple of oddballs in the expense reports? Then the tax authorities start investigating, and they uncover a big mess in the books, that leads to people getting jailed for fraud.
Many of the bad things that happen in organizations are a function of impulsive behavior. People very seldomly plan to exaggerate profits, steal money from the till, or abuse power for selfish ends. Instead, an opportunity presents itself, and people with low impulse control just indulge in it.
Integrity, which is not only a personal virtue but also an organizational strength, is highly dependent on self-regulation, which is like a persistent inner conversation that frees us from being stuck in our feelings.
That night in Brussels I received a padded receipt and two lessons for life.
Lesson one: do not indulge in fries and Belgian beer for dinner if you are supposed to hold a 4-hour workshop in the morning.
Lesson two: when you are self-employed, make sure taxi drivers don’t think you are on corporate expenses. Those yellow-cab drivers speak with a forked tongue!