pop art illustration of bribe

A Bribe is a Bribe

Why do organizations use sanitized language rather than more direct verbiage? A new generation of business leaders and employees is beginning to question the need for corporate speak. Michael Volkov discusses the need for a new approach.

Language communicates more than just words – indeed, the use of language reflects much more than simple communication. Often, a person’s language reveals an attitude, a feeling, a perspective and much more. I am often struck by how language is used by corporations to mask a clear and distinct idea. Corporate speak is a language unto itself; it can reflect a company’s culture and its commitment to honesty, trust and integrity.

Forgive me for questioning the use of corporate language, but when I read phrases such as “improper payments,” “questionable payments” and other equally vague terms used to describe flat-out bribes, I question the need for companies to avoid using accurate language. My overriding question in these circumstances is, why can’t the company use straightforward language?

A bribe is a bribe, and no matter how you characterize the payment, it is still a bribe. Of course, I recognize that in order to violate the FCPA or domestic bribery laws, a payment must be made with “corrupt” intent. In the FCPA context, a payment must be made with intent to influence a foreign official to act contrary to his or her official duties. Assuming that a payment is made with the requisite intent, such a payment constitutes a bribe.

Companies that are reluctant or unwilling to use straightforward language may choose to avoid clear and concise language. Such an attitude may reflect the company’s unwillingness to face the implications of an employee complaint, apparent misconduct by officers or employees or other problems.

The importance of language is perhaps best illustrated when companies choose to define their corporate values. The words selected by a company help to define the company’s culture, and they have an impact on every employee. The specific words used by the company are perceived by employees in a manner that ultimately is translated into employee beliefs and conduct.

Google relies on a creative mantra: “Ten things we know to be true.”

The Container Store describes a “Man in the Desert” metaphor to promote effective sales and strong leadership traits.

Corporate communications should always focus on the positive rather than informing employees what not to do. People respond to optimism and avoid negative communications. Corporate language should always fit a company’s culture – bland statements of encouragement may sound positive, but in the end fail to motivate employees.

Corporate language should weave in stories or vignettes that exemplify company values and objectives. Employees respond to goals, leadership and encouragement.

The new generation of business leaders and employees is beginning to question the use of corporate-speak, or bland business language. The focus is fast becoming the link between language and a company’s culture. New leaders are rethinking the bland use of corporate language that extracts concepts typically used in day-to-day life in the corporate world. Some are advocating for replacing corporate-speak with a human voice in a company, encouraging employees to speak to each other as humans, not as employees wedded to intracompany formalities. This trend is interesting to observe and may eventually lead to honest, open and concise language used by corporate leaders and employees. There is no reason that all corporate communications have to be conducted in a formal manner designed to avoid everyday expressions.

Going back to my original point in this posting, formality in describing a bribe reinforces the lack of clarity in corporate communications and the language used among leaders and employees.

This article was republished with permission from Michael Volkov’s blog, Corruption, Crime & Compliance.


Michael Volkov

Michael Volkov

Michael-Volkov-leclairryanMichael Volkov is the CEO of The Volkov Law Group LLC, where he provides compliance, internal investigation and white collar defense services.  He can be reached at [email protected].  His practice focuses on white collar defense, corporate compliance, internal investigations, and regulatory enforcement matters. He is a former federal prosecutor with almost 30 years of experience in a variety of government positions and private practice.

Michael maintains a well-known blog: Corruption Crime & Compliance which is frequently cited by anti-corruption professionals and professionals in the compliance industry.Michael has extensive experience representing clients on matters involving the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the UK Bribery Act, money laundering, Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC), export controls, sanctions and International Traffic in Arms, False Claims Act, Congressional investigations, online gambling and regulatory enforcement issues.

Michael has assisted clients with design and implementation of compliance programs to reduce risk and respond to global and US enforcement programs.

Michael has built a strong reputation for his practical and comprehensive compliance strategies.Michael served for more than 17 years as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia; for 5 years as the Chief Crime and Terrorism Counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Chief Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Counsel for the Senate and House Judiciary Committees; and as a Trial Attorney in the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Michael also has extensive trial experience and has been lead attorney in more than 75 jury trials, including some lasting more than six months. His clients have included corporations, officers, directors and professionals in, internal investigations and criminal and civil trials. He has handled a number of high-profile criminal cases involving a wide‐range of issues, including the FCPA and compliance matters, environmental crimes, and antitrust cartel investigations in countries all around the world.

Representative Engagements

  • Successfully represented three officers of a multinational company in two separate criminal antitrust investigations involving a criminal antitrust investigation in the District of Columbia and the Southern District of New York.
  • Defended pharmaceutical company before the Food and Drug Administration and Senate Finance Committee relating to application for approval of generic drug.
  • Conducted internal investigation which exonerated company against allegations of false statements in submissions to the FDA and against improper conduct alleged by Senate Finance Committee.
  • Represented company before the US State Department on alleged violations of ITAR which lead to voluntary disclosure and imposition of no civil or criminal penalties.
  • Advised several multinational companies on compliance with anti‐corruption laws, and design and implementation of anti‐corruption and anti‐money laundering compliance programs.
  • Advised hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and medical device companies on compliance issues relating to Stark law and Anti‐Kickback law and regulations.
  • Conducted due diligence investigations for large multinational companies for anti‐corruption compliance of: potential third party agents, joint venture partners and acquisition targets in Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America.
  • Represented individual in white collar fraud case in Alexandria, Virginia and secured dismissal of criminal charges and expungement of criminal record.
  • Represented company before Congress and Executive Branch in effort to modify Justice Department regulations concerning use of federal funds.
  • Advised and assisted World Bank in review of global corruption policies, enforcement programs and corruption investigations and prosecutions.

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