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What is Bribery?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Bribery involves offering or accepting something of value in a situation where the person who accepts the bribe is expected to perform a service which goes beyond his or her normal job description. For example, a motorist being ticketed for parking in the wrong place might offer a bribe to the police officer to ask him or her to tear up the ticket. In many regions of the world, bribery is considered a crime, and it can be severely punished. In other areas, bribery is more socially acceptable, which can place a heavy burden on those in the lower ranks of society, as they cannot afford to bribe officials in the style to which they are accustomed.

Any number of things can be used as a bribe. While money is a classic bribe, bribes can also be more intangible, and they might include things like offers of real estate, valuable objects, or a promise to perform a particular service in the future. In order to be considered a bribe, the object of value must be offered and accepted with the understanding that the person who accepts the bribe will be doing something in return. This differentiates bribes from gifts offered in genuine good will, and also distinguishes bribery from tipping, a practice in which gifts are offered in return for good service.

In regions where officials are particularly corrupt, they may come to expect “grease money” to perform tasks which are actually part of their job descriptions, such as reviewing visa applications or inspecting materials being brought through customs. In these instances, people from regions where bribery is illegal may be allowed to offer grease money, with the understanding that otherwise, the task will never be accomplished.

Bribery can be on a very thin line, and cultural differences can sometimes lead to confusion. In some cultures, for example, offering a tip may be considered a bribe, while in others, a failure to tip would be construed as offensive. The complex Middle Eastern tradition of baksheesh is an example of a confusing situation; baksheesh is not viewed as bribery in the Middle East, and in fact a well-established system of bribery exists in some Middle Eastern countries, and it is entirely differentiated from baksheesh by local citizens.

Depending on regional laws, bribery can be prosecuted and punished with fines, jail time, or compensation. Especially in countries which are based on egalitarian ideals, bribery is often viewed as especially offensive, since it erases the illusion that all members of society are equal when someone can essentially buy the favors or skills of someone else with the right bribe.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By anon257018 — On Mar 24, 2012

The Greeks invented bribery! In Greek I know this one Alexander the Great conquered the Persians through bribing their own generals, and then the Greeks would terminate the generals of the Persian armies. That is called strategy and the US uses it the same way Alexander did, to rule the greatest numbers in an enemy's force.

The Persian king did know Alexander was poor but his henchmen where fooled. That is how you win against greater forces: lie. Give them more hope than others they work for and they will look at you for your tendencies.

By Mcangel05 — On May 01, 2011

I think more people seem to have the illegal and corruption factor in mind when they think of bribery. Extortion, especially, comes to mind since a person is unlawfully obtaining money, property or services from a person or institution through coercion. The corruption factor of bribery is what gives it a bad name overall.

By dixiedreamer — On Apr 29, 2011

From the time we are children we learn to say "if you do this, I'll do that." That can be the start of bribery or a business deal. A simple bribery definition really comes down to the giving or offering of a bribe so that someone will or won't do something else. The expectation of a voluntary action in return is what makes the difference between a bribe and demonstration of goodwill. It can consist of cash or other favors which may range from a simple act to something friendly to inappropriate or even illegal.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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