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'The truth. The whole truth. And nothing but the truth'

Columnist Dave Conrad says when the boss is dishonest, it can create a culture of lies.

Ask Dave - Dave Conrad column mug
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Dear Dave,

When I was looking at different companies to work for, I tried to do as much research as possible about the people — especially management — that worked for the company. The company I chose appeared to have management that was honest and ethical with the people they dealt with. But I was wrong. I found that management does not tell the “whole truth” to employees, customers, and suppliers? Management cuts corners by telling lies, and it seems like management is OK with being dishonest. Doesn’t this send a signal to employees that it is OK to be dishonest for the sake of making a profit?

Signed: B

Dear B,

You are correct. According to some studies there are a lot of people working in all professions that would rather (occasionally) lie than tell the truth, if the truth was going to be uncomfortable, demanding, stressful or inconvenient. Personally, I think it's hard work to lie — you have to keep track of your story and make sure details line up just right.

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Managers as leaders, in Rochester or anywhere, set the tone and example whether they know it or not and employees are watching them to determine what is acceptable behavior and what is not. If management models dishonest practices, some or most employees will naturally follow the lead. This becomes the culture of the company and people — like customers — find themselves not doing business with a company, because they just can’t trust the company.

It all may start out as little lies or half-truths and escalate into a corporate condition where nothing can be believed. Managers must set the example and create a climate of truth and honesty. As brutal as honesty often can be, it would be worse to build hopes, or make business deals, based on lies and deception. I believe that inevitably the results of dishonesty will be losing the best people and losing large and small customers.

I believe some people tell lies because there is, sadly, a clear link between lying and success (though temporary). We frustratingly see people getting away with small acts of deception to their advantage, but it is only short term. You will sleep better at night if you do not follow suit – this is called the “sleep test.” Honest conduct will bring long-lasting business relationships with all company personnel and all key companies.

Why do people lie?

Most of us embellish facts or exaggerate in trivial ways — to make a story more interesting, or to gain sympathy from a friend — and the consequences are generally harmless. But, when bosses lie, the risk is great — low morale, a culture of deception, and even the loss of the most loyal employees. No one wants to work at a company with management that will “stab you in the back” and blame you for every error.

Businesses are stressed and, often, have internal struggles going on. Upper management wants the most productivity for the least amount of payroll, and employees (some/most) want the most pay for the bare minimum amount of work. And things get said and done that are not totally “above board.” I believe there is never an excuse for dishonesty from either group. If companies need productivity, they also need facts and believability.

If managers need to lie to make themselves look better, by telling everyone whatever he or she wants to hear, my belief is that these managers cannot keep all of the plates of deception spinning in the air. They will slip up and get caught in their lies. In your case, your management is afraid of failing and they are afraid of making people angry, but their actions tend to guarantee that result. I don’t know about you, but if someone lies to me — even just once — I will have a hard time believing this person for a long time to come.

I’m sorry to say that I don’t have a sure-fire way to confront a dishonest, deceptive manager. But I do have a few tips that might help you and your co-workers out. The good news is that managers that lie don’t normally last too long. They’ll lie to the wrong person, or shoot themselves in the foot, because they forgot what they said or did — you just don’t want to go down with them.

Meet with a manager who you feel will be sympathetic to your views. Be calm, businesslike, factual and brief. Describe how the dishonesty is affecting the business, for example, low morale, low productivity, a high rate of calling in sick or even theft.

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Seek colleagues who behave ethically and form an alliance. I recommend meeting in a small group environment over multiple occasions to ensure participants' readiness to challenge the current deception system. Honesty grows when there is strength in numbers — especially when all employees consistently practice what they preach.

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Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at conradd@augsburg.edu . Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.

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