This morning I came across Pamela Meyer’s post on the Huffington Post and her TED talk about How to Spot a Liar. “Of course it’s true,” she says. “We all lie, but mostly in harmless or benign ways. Like telling your husband you don’t mind if he watches football. Like telling your wife you like her new haircut when it’s too short. What’s the point in telling the truth? Her hair will take months to grow back anyway. Why cause a tidal wave of tears?”
Although we all indulge in the little white lie from time to time like of the type described above, I don’t feel any more comfortable with the “deception epidemic” we face everyday than does Meyer.
“High-stakes lying is out of control. And it’s costing us big bucks in one way or another,” she writes. “It’s not simply a matter of quantifying losses in dollars. It’s costing us emotionally and psychologically as well. We all pay through the nose for deceit, whether in increased insurance premiums, home and computer security systems, psychiatric or divorce lawyer bills, or reputational damage. Trust is under siege and at a premium.”
What’s more, it’s not just politicians who have a problem with the truth, it’s football coaches, CEOs, and even some of our employees. Some even lie over things that don’t matter, like Paul Ryan’s marathon time. And, it wasn’t too many months ago that Yahoos! CEO got caught for lying on his resume.
Just last year when writing about this topic, I was called out by a reader or two who considered me naive. “Lying is just a part of doing business,” they said. “You can’t be completely honest with your employees. I’ve sat across the table from someone who I knew would be let go the next week, but I couldn’t tell him the truth—I wouldn’t have gotten his best efforts during his last week.”
I guess I am naive. I really try to be honest with my team and other colleagues. What’s more, I’m sure there are times when it’s hurt my career—however, I can sleep at night.
Meyer suggests that a typical organization loses five percent of annual revenue to fraud. “This figure translates to a potential projected annual fraud loss of more than 3.5 trillion, according to a recent study by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners,” she writes.
She also points out that one in four Americans believe it’s OK to lie to an insurer, one-third of all resumes contain false information, and one in five employees say they are aware of fraud in the workplace but won’t report it. She also suggests that in any given day we might be lied to from 10 to 200 times.
Creating an environment where honesty, integrity, and trust thrive sounds like some kind of pipe dream after reading these statistics. Naive or not, here are a few suggestions that might help foster a more truthful environment within your small business:
- Be honest yourself: Although this sounds overly simplistic, and it probably is, tell the truth yourself. Whether you believe it or not, most employees can tell when you’re lying to them and if they see you lying to customers, it sets a bad president. It’s probably natural to want to cover up mistakes, but when you’re honest with customers and make a real effort to correct mistakes, it demonstrates to your employees acceptable behavior. If you’re employees discover that you are dishonest with some, they’ll rightly assume you are dishonest with everyone.
- Don’t shoot the messenger: When mistakes happen (and they will) shooting the messenger fosters an environment where people become afraid to share the truth. This can be catastrophic under the right circumstances. Far better to acknowledge the mistake, learn from it, and move forward. Early in my career, I heard stories about older colleagues who had drawers full of orders that were sold at unprofitable margins because they needed to hide their mistakes from the boss. This made it impossible for the business owner to have an accurate picture of profit and loss. What’s more, hiding mistakes makes it problematic to solve issues that cause chronic mistakes.
- Have a zero-tolerance policy for dishonesty: I once worked in an organization where petty theft was a real problem. Computer dongles (the small connector that allowed computers to communicate with projectors, etc.) were stolen from the conference rooms on such a frequent basis that they eventually had to permanently anchor them down. In once instance an employee swapped his monitor for another employee’s monitor he thought was of higher quality. When confronted he denied having “stole” the monitor, but eventually admitted to it when management suggested they could review the surveillance video. He didn’t lose his job. In fact, he was in the middle of a promotion when this happened. Other than a little embarrassment, nothing happened to the guy. The company de facto endorsed his dishonest behavior.
Dishonesty rears its ugly (and yes I said ugly) head in many ways. I once had a business partner who treated all of our customers like they were trying to steal from us. I found out later that it was because he was stealing from me. He was projecting his dishonest behavior on everyone else—I steal therefore you steal. Meanwhile, he was alienating customers who wanted to do business with us.
I’m not sure I’m convinced that everybody lies, but I am convinced that it is a huge problem that plagues most businesses, both large and small. What do you think? Is it important to foster an environment of honesty, integrity, and trust? What are you doing?