Business Maverick


After the Bell: The new language of bribery

After the Bell: The new language of bribery

There is a category of bribe linguistics that seems to apply only to large companies making serious money by resorting to bribes. Obviously, internal emails cannot record requests for ‘payola’ in so many words, so they have to find some other way to express this.

It’s a depressing thing about our world that we have developed countless euphemisms for bribery. There are hundreds of slang words like “backhander” or “sweetener”. Almost every culture on Earth has a word for bribery: baksheesh in the Middle East, bakssissi in Greece, rishvat in Pakistan and roshveh in Iran.

Quite often there is a bit of artistry involved. One of the many slang words in Mexico and Spain for a bribe is “la mordida”, or “the bite”. In Germany, bribes are often called “schmiergeld”, literally the grease on the meal. It’s amazing how often drinks are involved, like “chaqian”, a cup of tea in China, or “gaseoso”, a soft drink in Portugal and Mozambique.

We are all familiar with very thirsty traffic cops in South Africa, an ailment for which a mere glass of water is apparently not a satisfactory outcome. A recent Economist article compares bribe requests in different languages, and in Burkina Faso, the most frequent request is for a Nescafé, which is relatively upscale.

But there is a different category of bribe linguistics that seems to apply to large companies making serious money by resorting to bribes. Obviously, internal emails cannot record requests for “payola” in so many words, so they have to find some other way to express this.

Last year, Glencore admitted to paying bribes for more than a decade and was fined about $1.5-billion for its transgressions, which was, by the way, kinda worth it. But one of the sidebar aspects of the story was the cutesy names that were used to disguise the bribes. One was pretty obvious: chocolates. But another, believe it or not, was “newspapers”. I am not making this up. So presumably, Swiss-based traders would tell their bosses that they needed to go and deliver some newspapers to their contacts in Nigeria. And nobody would think that that was suspicious? Really? Haven’t they heard of the internet?

Another company, Owl Securities, described its bribes as “kissing money”, which is perhaps a little bit too much information. Going back a few years, a company called Controls Components described its bribes as “flowers”, which we can all agree is extremely sweet.

Anyway, we have a new bribery catchphrase that comes from a recent breaking story in Bloomberg Businessweek in which two reporters wrote about bribery in Venezuelan oil auctions.

Big oil trading companies hired a consultant to help them win the auctions. To do so, the consultant apparently bribed someone at the Venezuelan state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, to let him know the amounts for all the bids for the oil, and he would share those numbers with his clients. They would then bid a bit more — sometimes just a cent more — and win the bid.

The winning traders then paid off the consultant and listed the costs as, wait for it, consultancy fees. How is it that nobody had come up with this entirely original phraseology before? Given how much SA’s state corporations have paid in the past for consultancy fees, perhaps they are, in fact, familiar with the euphemism. 

So, next time I get stopped by a traffic cop and get asked for a Coke, I will refuse. But I will pay consultancy fees if asked because sometimes, just sometimes, good advice is worth so much more than a cooldrink. DM/BM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Paul Hoffman says:

    C’mon Tim! The SA arms deals are littered with consultancy fees and “commissions” for which read “bribes”. The Brits budgeted 200 million sterling for these commissions and we’re proud to announce in the House of Commons that they won the bid way under budget.

  • Gregory Scott says:

    Thank you for an interesting read.

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