Somehow, I’ve become embroiled in a controversy (why do these things happen to me?) about the proper use of “professional.”

Many of those who have studied the topic insist it be restricted to, at a minimum, roles for which accredited institutions award certifications.

Some go further, wanting “professional” to be used only when the law doesn’t allow anyone to practice a craft without certification. By this definition, of course, cosmetologists qualify, but there is no such thing as an IT professional.

My own position? As I lack the authority to enforce linguistic usages on anyone (and if I had it, I’d use it to make using hopefully to mean I hope a felony), I limited my part of the conversation to description rather than prescription: “Professional” has at least four different meanings. In addition to the two already listed, it can mean “someone who practices a trade or craft that makes use of an extensive, well-defined body of knowledge and skills.” That’s what we mean when we talk about IT professionals.

And, it can mean “someone who gets paid for doing what they do.” I’m old enough to remember when professional athletes were barred from Olympic competition, the only difference between professional and amateur athletes being whether they’re paid for their efforts.

For some reason, these rather obvious points made some participants in the conversation downright grumpy.

Which brings us to the seemingly unrelated topic of whether incentive pay amounts to bribery, as claimed here not very long ago (“Do retention bribes make sense?KJR, 7/2/2012).

The place to start is the definition. Many correspondents insisted it isn’t a bribe unless the result is nefarious or illegal behavior, so incentive pay isn’t bribery.

But by that definition, giving a politician money in exchange for their agreeing to vote a certain way on an issue isn’t a bribe either. After all, voting a certain way on an issue isn’t illegal. For that matter, changing one’s mind, and therefore one’s vote isn’t illegal. Changing it in exchange for cash or other favors is what makes the cash or favors a bribe … and therefore illegal … in the first place.

Unless it’s a campaign contribution, of course, which, I’m told, is an exercise of free speech, not a bribe. Which of course makes complete sense: The purpose of free speech is to allow us to persuade each other through the presentation of compelling arguments, and what argument is more compelling to elected officials than a large wad of cash they can use in their attempts to get elected?

I trust the distinction is clear. But I digress. The question is whether incentive compensation is bribery. As what makes bribing an elected official illegal is that it gets them to do what they otherwise would not have done, that appears to be the essence of the beast.

Which leads to this frequently expressed objection to the incentive-comp-as-bribery proposition: If that’s a bribe, isn’t all compensation a bribe? After all, very few of us would show up for work if our employers stopped paying us.

It’s a good point. A very good point, that leads to a very important insight about leadership. But it isn’t quite right, because basic compensation doesn’t get anyone to do what they wouldn’t otherwise do.

Unless you’re wealthy enough to retire with the lifestyle you desire (and aren’t in a position to get enough money to live on via other means, like extortion or armed robbery) your options are limited: Starve to death or get a paying job.

So when your employer pays you, it isn’t to get you to go to work. You’d do that anyway. It’s to influence your choice of where to go to work—a very different matter.

Which gets us to why the point matters: Many business “leaders” (as opposed to leaders) think that money is the only tool they have to get employees to work for them, instead of somewhere else. They think, that is, they have to bribe people to work for them.

And so, they pay more than they have to and get worse results for it, because if money is all that matters to their employees, how they treat their employees doesn’t matter. “Leaders” like this don’t treat them very well.

Which leads to this week’s question: What could an employer offer you to get you to work for them if the best they could pay you was 15% less than what you’re making right now?

And this week’s second question: If you’re in management, do you offer this to the employees who work for you right now?