Does honesty matter in business?
A reader recently wrote me about his employer. He states he has a new sales job which for the most part is fun, and pays well. However, he’s being told to lie to customers that he’s not being paid commission, when he actually is.
He says that as someone who values honesty, he would rather not do it.
How to proceed?
Basically, his employer is asking him to put himself in a position of weakness with his (and their) customers. When you subvert the truth, you have to walk around with two “columns” in your mind. One column is labeled, “reality.” The other column is labeled, “reality as I’m describing it to others, contrary to facts.”
Not only is this stressful and difficult; it makes you less effective.
The whole purpose of any business policy is to please customers and make money.
If a business takes the view, “We will tell the customer what he/she wants to hear. Because this will make the customer happy, we’ll make more money.”
Such a view assumes all people are stupid. It assumes that nobody is a critical thinker, or pays attention at all. It also assumes that the sales representatives being asked to lie will not trip up on the problem of the “two column” syndrome.
These assumptions are all flawed and wrong, and that should be obvious.
Normally we talk of “business ethics” or “ethics” as doing what’s best for the other party. “I should be ethical for the sake of others, even though it will involve a sacrifice on my part.”
But once you give even five minutes of thought to the subject, it becomes clear that ethics is as much for yourself, or even more, than for others.
In this example, it’s very possible the customers will never know whether the sales reps get paid commission or not. It’s also possible they do not care, and would not care if they found out. But it still places the salesperson in the position of having to lie, and it’s bad for the salesperson if nobody else.
Also, lying is never practical. The potential for exposure always exists, and exposure often happens. Nobody likes to be lied to; this is one of the few universal truths which applies to absolutely everyone. (Even criminals resent it.) Once the sales rep stumbles, forgets or trips over the truth in some way, and the deception is exposed, then it becomes difficult for the customer to ever fully trust the salesperson (or the company) again.
Trust is the basis for any relationship, including any business relationship. Reputation is absolutely crucial for any business. While it’s impossible to stop disgruntled or irrational people from saying things which are untrue about your business, the last thing you want is for complaints to be grounded in reality. This will undercut success.
My advice is to find a job where you are not asked to lie. If you cannot immediately do that, then cope as best as you can until you do. Do whatever you can to avoid bringing the subject up. Most customers probably will not ask if you are paid by commission. Most will probably assume you are paid that way, which in fact you are, even though your employer wishes you to lie about it.
The reader who wrote me said he worries about the company’s long-term sustainability given that it asks its employees to lie, even if the lie is not about the product or service being sold. I agree. There are worse things, but dishonesty is a bad practice, and it tends to affect other areas rather than remain contained. It’s moral and psychological cancer. It starts out “harmless” enough, but it grows and spreads into toxicity and eventual destruction.
Ultimately, your integrity matters more than any particular company or job. Do whatever you can to foster a relationship based on integrity with your customers. Tell yourself that your relationship with this customer will most likely be temporary, while your relationship with yourself (and the people with whom you associate, including customers) will be ongoing and permanent.
When you lie, you’re counting on the ignorance, stupidity or lack of critical thinking of your victim in order to get by. That might make a twisted kind of sense if you’re a criminal. But if you’re trying to foster self-esteem, personal happiness, and a good reputation with customers who wish to buy products and services from you and tell others to do the same, lying is a dead end road, for sure.
Honesty in business matters – to yourself, most of all. Honesty is a reflection of staying true to facts and reality. It’s a byproduct of rationality and reason, our basic tools for survival and the only way we can hope to get through the day.
Honesty is not a holier-than-thou sacrifice of the self. It’s one of the most selfish and self-interested things there is.
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