Sunday, June 22, 2014

Making peace with lies is bad business

Sixteen years ago, I wrote an article for the business magazine I helped to edit about the lies entrepreneurs told to get their businesses started.

I wrote about the guy who wanted to get through to a difficult-to-reach leasing agent and finally lied to the receptionist by saying he was the agent's doctor. The same fellow had also purchased a check embosser and regularly typed the words "certified check" on his checks so delivery people would leave supplies they wouldn't have left without receiving payment by cash or certified check.

One of the points I was trying to make was that there's a difference between posturing to appear more established than you are and outright lying. I postured that it was perfectly acceptable to go into a meeting confident and eager to take on the hardest of business tasks. When a prospective customer asks, "Can you do the job?" there's a difference between saying "Yes" to that question vs. "Yes" to the question, "Have you done a job like this before?" Yes to the latter is lying. Yes, to the former exhibits the disciplined exuberance that most entrepreneurs need to get off the ground and thrive. 

I ended the article by suggesting that the danger of becoming known as a liar is that others will quickly recognize the behavior and either discount your word or, worse, lie right back. 

The reaction to the story was typical to that of similar stories I'd written for the magazine. A group of readers took me to task for not understanding that being light on the truth was how business got done and it was naïve to believe otherwise. Others found it appalling that any entrepreneur would think it was OK to lie to get what he needed to get his business going. Still others told me that my defense of posturing was a slippery slope and I should reconsider my thinking. 

But my belief that outright lying to get ahead in business is wrong still holds. 

More than a decade after writing that article, I received an email from the entrepreneur telling me he was sitting in an airport waiting for a flight. He wanted to take the time to let me know the article that featured his tactics had stuck with him all of these years, but that, unlike me, he still sees nothing wrong in what he did. He maintained that he did what he had to do to get started, words very similar to what he had said 10 years before. 

The question for me was how to respond to his email. Was a strident, "You just don't get it and here's why," called for? Or was no response the best? 

The right thing, I decided, was to respond, thank him for his email and let him know that while I'm glad he was at peace with everything he described doing in the article, I still was not and hoped that others would not be, either. Each of us seems comfortable with our truth. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of  The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apartis a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jeff, the thing with Liars is that they are Liars. And because someone overstated his qualifications and succeeded, means nothing. As I am sure there are many more who did so and failed. Causing untold misery.
So all can rest comfortable when they succeed but it certainly does no help those who got burned by the liars. Banks and pretty much anyone with security looks for honesty. Most applications for jobs have some research done. And liars are fired if caught. Even after.
Would you be happy if your daughter's new boyfriend, who said he was healthy and rich, turned out to have HEP C because of a drug addiction and 5 kids needing unpaid support???
Everyone can have an opinion but it only goes so far and Liars should remain known as liars.

Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma.