Picture this: It's 4:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon at the end of an exhausting week. You've finally reached a good stopping place on your work and everything seems on track for a clean break when 5:00 rolls around. Suddenly, the phone rings. You glance at your Caller ID screen and cringe. It's your most talkative client-the long-winded one who typically calls "just to chat" and keeps you occupied for hours on end.
So what do you do now? Do you take the call and resign yourself to a late start on the weekend? Or do you have your receptionist tell him that you've already left for the day so you can deal with him on Monday?
If you opt for the white lie, you're not alone. We're all guilty of stretching the truth every now and then, and some of us find ourselves doing it so often we barely notice anymore. But according to author Dave Anderson, those "harmless" little untruths are anything but. Not only are these fibs a reflection on your character-after all, lying is lying-they can open the door to bigger, darker, more destructive lies.
"White lies are like the gateway drug to bigger offenses," says Dave Anderson, author of How to Run Your Business by THE BOOK-Revised and Expanded: A Biblical Blueprint to Bless Your Business (Wiley, 2011, ISBN: 978-1-118-02237-5, $18.95, www.learntolead.com). "Get away with them and you're tempted to tell ever bigger ones. Eventually, your lies will catch up with you and will damage your relationships with clients, vendors, and employees. And in a business world that is already unstable, it's not a risk you should be willing to take."
While most white lies seem harmless on the front end, consider the potential consequences of your actions. What if, for instance, the client you had your receptionist lie to happens to find out you actually were in the office? He may feel offended enough to leave, or worse, to tell your other clients about your unsavory behavior.
Even more detrimental, says Anderson, is the effect that white lies can have on one's own psyche. White lies work much the same as other types of "lesser" offenses (say, flirting with that married coworker rather than launching a full-on affair). Basically, you become desensitized to the feelings of wrongness and guilt, and, before you know it, you are finding ways to excuse away other, more serious infractions.
"If you're going to start classifying lies as ‘white' or ‘whoppers,' you may as well categorize different levels of stealing too," explains Anderson. "The white lie version of embezzlement could be taking a few dollars worth of office supplies home with you, or mailing personal correspondence with company postage, or making personal copies on the company Xerox machine. Is that the standard you want to set for your employees?"
Anderson suggests that you personally work inside a "no lying zone" and insist that your employees do the same. He offers the following tips:
Tell the truth at all costs (literally!). You should tell the truth even when it is not easy, cheap, popular, or convenient. Selling a product at the right price (rather than a grossly inflated one that you are pretty sure you can get away with) may cost you more in the short term, but dishonesty and deception can end up costing you much more in the long run, in your professional and personal lives.
Don't give false impressions. When it comes to business, false impressions are everywhere. From misleading advertising campaigns to padded resumes, you won't be hard pressed to find examples of people trying to make others believe things are better than they really are. And while you may not realize it, this is just another form of lying! Anderson says that you have to be upfront and honest with those you work with, or you may lose your credibility and build up bitterness and resentment in a once-valuable business relationship. Think about the ways that you or your company may be misleading others, and find ways to stop it. Make sure that you aren't spinning feedback to make someone feel as though they're doing better or worse than they really are. And certainly don't mislead any potential job candidates or employees about realities concerning compensation, advancement, or future plans.
Never, ever ask someone else to lie on your behalf. This is an abuse of your power, position, relationship, and friendship. Asking an employee or colleague to lie for you can do permanent damage to your integrity and reputation, and it opens the door for them to lie to you, and those you do business with, as well.
Beware of the four magic words. Anderson says that there are four words that should tip you off that you are headed for trouble: Any sentence that begins with "Just tell him that..." is usually followed by a lie. For example, "Just tell him that the offer has already expired," or, "Just tell him that this is the last one available at that price," are lies that may seem harmless on the surface but can lead to big trouble. And if someone tells you to tell someone else, "Just tell him that..." you can do the person a great service by respectfully replying, "But that's not true. What should I tell him instead?"
"Think of all the business scandal stories from this past year and how many of them were the result of dishonesty-and how that dishonesty shattered the lives of so many people," he concludes. "That's something every business owner should work to avoid.
"And even though telling the truth is often the hard and unpopular thing to do, honesty is rule number one to developing sound character," adds Anderson. "Tell the truth because it is the right thing to do and encourage your employees to do the same. It will benefit you, and your business, all the year through."