Wednesday, March 14, 2007


[I wrote the following column that originally appeared in The New York Times on Sunday, May 21, 2000.]

When the results of an annual honesty and ethics poll were released last fall by the Gallup Organization, I had just begun a stint as a college professor and was feeling quite smug. There among the 10 professions ranked most honest by the American public was my new calling, with 52 percent of respondents judging its honesty as high or very high.

Then, after just a few minutes of basking in professional glow, I saw where the survey ranked another of my incarnations, that of online journalist: firmly among the bottom 10 on the list of 45, with only one respondent in 10 giving people in that line of work a good score. Talk about professional disconnect.

The findings present a puzzle.

When introducing myself, what do I tell people I do? If I want them to trust me from the get-go, do I just say "college teacher" and withhold the part about writing for online publications?

If disclosing the complete picture leads people to an unfair conclusion about me, isn't it right, not to mention advantageous, to withhold some information? In a legal context, the answer is no. "It's better to include and explain than to omit and cast doubt," said Andrew J. Sherman, a lawyer at Katten Muchin Zavis in Washington. Of course, it is the job of a good lawyer to look through the lens of legal vulnerability and to caution against anything that may lead to trouble.

But real life is rarely so simple.

Imagine that you are applying for a job during the McCarthyite 1950's. Years earlier, in college, you flirted briefly with radical politics. Should you disclose it and risk having the interviewer unfairly take you for a subversive, or hide it and be surer of getting the fair treatment you deserve?

Those pernicious days are behind us, thankfully, but ethically analogous situations still crop up. A few years ago, when a colleague was on vacation in the northern part of Ireland, he wanted to rent a car and was asked the name of his employer (an American newspaper). The rental agent told him that the company could not rent to people in certain "risky" occupations, including journalists.

My friend swallowed hard and pleaded, somewhat disingenuously, that his job -- preparing maps, charts and diagrams for the newspaper -- was really more that of a commercial artist and not of a journalist.

He got the car.

"We all practice selective disclosure," said Daryl Koehn, director of the Center for Business Ethics at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. "If we have been a professor at both Iowa State and the University of Chicago, we tell people we taught at the latter, because it is more prestigious. There is simply not enough time in the day to divulge our entire past history."

The ends figure in how we view these means. Sacrificing integrity to save a life is often, usually rightly, seen as heroic. Trimming the truth for personal gain -- landing a plum contract, for instance -- is difficult to justify. Somewhere in between is withholding true information that you think will lead people to false conclusions.

"We've stopped saying we are consultants, because as soon as we do, we find ourselves faced with a barrage of negativity and preconceived notions," said Michelle L. Reina, co-author with her husband, Dennis, of "Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace" (Berrett-Kohler), as well as, well, a consultant: the Reinas are principals of Chagnon & Reina Associates in Stowe, Vt. Too often, she said, people have difficulty separating individuals from professions and assume that any journalist is like all journalists, that any consultant is like all consultants. Now, she tells prospective clients she "works with organizations that want to bring trust into the workplace." As words go, "trust" strikes a better chord than "consultant."

Trust is also the key to solving the puzzle. Gallup polls notwithstanding, in all but the most extreme cases we simply cannot know with certainty how what we say will be perceived. Deciding to be less than honest about something trivial because we think the truth might provoke an unfair judgment of us is just a few steps away from deciding that deception for naked gain is appropriate any time we think we "deserve" it.

"Trust by its very nature is an act of reasonable faith," Professor Koehn said. "It exists precisely because we cannot control all circumstances. We should not make the mistake of thinking that all trust is contingent upon full disclosure." When in doubt about how the facts will be perceived, she advised, look gently for more clues. Otherwise, she said, she would proceed on the assumption that most people can be trusted to draw fair conclusions about us, regardless of what we do for a living.

Good advice. Did I mention that I was an online journalist?

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