Monthly Archives: January 2014

Keeping your white-collared shirt crime-free

It seems as if at least one regulator always has the opportunity, in the run up to  Christmas, to  grab some HEADLINE about WHITE COLLAR CRIME.  To lob a nice little media release out there about (alleged) corporate  misconduct, just in time for the weekend papers and just in time for the corporate lawyers, in-house and out-of -house, to cancel their European skiing trips.

Last December, the Australian competition regulator filed a court action that alleged a criminal cartel between a big Australian retailer and  some multinationals. It alleged that these  companies  had a secret “Project Mastermind”.  Company reps met (allegedly) to discuss ways to fix the prices of laundry products, and worked together to introduce standardised “ultra concentrate” laundry products.

It’s a shame that the ultra concentrate laundry powder did not do more to keep all the white-collared shirts looking clean.

I have worked as a competition lawyer, and before that, as an investigator for the Australian competition regulator. I am still, always, intrigued by white collar crime.  My YA novel paddled a little in these waters.

 It really seems that people should know better than to get together with competitors to mastermind a market.  In Australia, market sharing and price fixing are criminal offences.  Most big company people, whether in sales or product development or whatever, have had some level of compliance training.  Many of these people would have a technical or legal person sitting in an office down the corridor who is always happy to have a “Can we do this / Why not? / Can we do this other thing? / Why not?” type of discussion with them.

At a law firm I worked at a special t-shirt was made up for our competition law retreat.  The front of the t-shirt had a picture of Adam Smith and this quote:

“people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices”.

I think, perhaps, that regulators are *especially* suspicious where reps of competing firms meet outside company premises to engage in “merriment and diversion”.  This is where my own suspicious imagination runs:

Time to leave for that competitor gathering.  There is some official stuff on the agenda, but other merry and diverting discussions are sure to pop up.  Let’s get  changed out of this suit and slide down the dress code to “business casual.” These chinos and polo shirts and [insert female quivalent here: I was never sure] are so… freeing.  After a couple of drinks the legal and technical guy/dame who lives down the corridor (and who is not invited to this event)  is SUCH fun to joke about.  He/she is always so slow to get with the new product.  So slow that he/she hasn’t worked out that the phrase “Thanks, friend”, is used by the whole team as code for “Can’t you ever give advice that is tailored to the real world?!”  And yes, it’s so fun keeping the “Real World” share drive far, far away from his/her computer…

Perhaps the Adam Smith t-shirt could be compulsory to wear under business suits?  So that his words would always be there, written across the corporate heart. And if the suit was discarded in preparation for a competitor gathering, his eyes would be watching over all the merriment and diversion.

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