When is lying ok?

Cheryl Kees Clendenon Business, In Detail Says 15 Comments

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People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built ~~Eleanor Roosevelt,

Today I found out a newish employee ordered something incorrectly. This happens. No big shocker. But what was shocking to me is how it played out. Purchase order is sent for item A. Employee discovers days later, item B was needed not Item A. Employee calls local vendor and says, (I am assuming)” Oh gosh, I ordered item A but need Item B. Please order Item B.”
Local vendor ( who works with our company all the time) says “ok, but this manufacturer charges a 50% restock fee”. Newish employee says, “Oh gee, I am going to get in trouble. Please do not tell my boss. I will pay the restock fee.” Then proceeds to order Item B. Apparently without a signed purchase order from the boss or the sales manager. Mistake compounded.
Ok, so in my somewhat black and white world, I call this lying. Some might call this a sin of omission. I call that lying also.I started teaching my kids about this concept called “ownership of our actions and choices” around the age of 2. Telling mommy that you broke her vase is not much fun but surely a fundamental building block of what is called “character”.Despite the possible and probable punishment of some sort, a child needs to learn it is far better to face the music and own up to whatever transgression has occurred. And I am not sure when the concept really starts to penetrate but if you do not teach it and reinforce the idea over and over then I am not sure one grows up to grasp the concept as an adult.
I guess I do not see my role as the owner of a business to include character development. Mostly because I fear that if character is not pretty jelled by the teenage years, it is an insurmountable task for a owner/designer lacking psychological training ( or patience) to attempt. And, when do I have the time for this?
So here is the kicker to me. The local vendor, someone I know well, agreed to keep it “quiet” since the employee said they would pay the restock fee. Remember this “transaction” was handled by employee and vendor…on my dime. All this comes to light when the bill for the restock arrives at my office today. The employee is no longer employed by me. Now I have a bill for a restock fee I did not authorize. And an item B that had no signed purchase order. I was not afforded the opportunity to keep the item with such a high restock fee to sell to someone else. No, that decision was taken out of my hands. Money lost.
I ask you these two questions:
Is lying “ok” when one is in fear of their boss being angry? I do not beat my employees or designers (except for gum chewing) and the metal rack in back is just for sinks…..I promise.
Who is ethically responsible for this fee? The obvious answer from a business standpoint  is me because I am the owner and the employee was employed by me at the time. I get this. I am responsible for actions of my employees. Okay.
But, does the local vendor have any ethical responsibility? Is it ok for another small business to make “deals” with employees of a company without informing the owner? Then expect the owner to pay the unauthorized fee that they did not bother to inform the owner about in the first place?
Let’s talk about character again for a minute. I may be terminally old fashioned but to me a person with character is someone who has the courage to stand before someone ( a teacher, a boss, a friend, a spouse) and take ownership of their actions and choices even when it is going to be difficult to do so and possibly could upset someone. Most would probably agree.
Here is my twist: I also think that character is found in those people who do not allow others to lead them by words or actions down the path of least resistance. Meaning: sometimes you have to speak up against what is wrong even when it is so much easier to stay quiet and give tacit acceptance. This might be considered “tattling” as a child, “narking” (my generational word) as a teen, or as an adult, having to say “sorry, I am not going along with that plan.”

What defines character to you? Is lying ever okay in a business setting?

Please let me know your thoughts.

Comments 15

  1. Let me start with the problem you now have with your vender, which to me, would largely involve any future dealings with said vendor. If he has not done a great deal of business with you, then you have very little recourse, but if it’s a longstanding relationship, then I do think an adjustment is in order. In the end your employee’s miscues become yours, just as the captain of the ship is responsible for its running aground no matter when it happens or who was actually on the bridge at the time. But when the vendor agreed to accept the re-stock fee on a hush, hush basis, thereby denying you an opportunity to resale the item yourself, thereby recouping at least some of the money, he became part of the lie. Maybe the fairer course of action would be for the restocking fee to be cut to 25%, and you and the vendor can then chalk it up to experience. He won’t make deals without your knowledge, and you will consider some kind of “dirty filthy liar” screening test for prospective employees.

    As for the general question, I was always taught that there is no such thing as a “business ethics” that is different from “day-to-day ethics.” Lying is lying no matter who does it or why it is done. And the other part of the equation is that it really doesn’t work well, at least not in the long run.

    Almost thirty years ago I worked in the advertising department of what was then a large daily newspaper (all of them have shrunk these days) scheduling a large part of their advertising, and from time to time, mistakes would occur. One of the problems we would then have is “what do we tell the advertiser?” My take was consistent throughout. “If we dropped the ball, we dropped the ball. Tell them the truth. The most effective line of BS in business is to just tell people the truth, because it’s so refreshing.” Because mine was a clerical position, my advice was often ignored, and with predictable results. The truth always outs.

    The other part of the issue of lying in business is the huge amount of it that goes on these days. Really, that is what caused the economic ills we now have. They lied when they made those subprime loans to people they knew did not have the income to repay them, lied when they sold them in the secondary market, lied when they bundled them up in derivatives. They even lied to themselves about what they were doing. “Real estate always goes up; there’s no bubble here.”

    Had all the people involved in the current debacle simply told the truth, they would have made pretty much the same amount of money (or if not, still an absolutely obscene amount!), and our economy would still be in fine shape. Instead, we have this. Telling the truth, as it turns out, is not only morally superior; it produces better results!

    To return to what prompted your blog, I do understand the fear of the employee who was afraid to tell the truth, but my feeling was always that if my employer were really so unreasonable that a mistake means the end of employment then so be it. I am surely better off without the job. Because of my age (65 next month), it will seem easier for me to say this now, but the truth is I have always lived by that, and I have walked away from jobs at times in my life when I was desperate for employment. My services are for hire, not my soul.

  2. I could maybe see a little white lye because you didn’t want to hurt someones feelings (not that I could ever get away with it) but especially when it comes to your work and lively hood it is never an option. It is not a good look and you would never want to jeopardize yourself or your companies image.

  3. ‘Telling the truth, as it turns out, is not only morally superior; it produces better results!’

    I love Joseph’s comment from above. It is so true. It may not be the easiest thing to do, but telling the truth always wins!

  4. Wow, what was up with your ex-employee? So afraid to admit a mistake they’d rather pay for it themselves – sounds like they need therapy. Or did they know they would be gone by the time the chickens came in to roost, in which case it’s pure dishonesty?
    Life would be so much more straightforward if everybody just owned their mistakes, wouldn’t it? I once worked for a designer who claimed never to make any – of course they did, everybody does. But this state of denial led to complicated and bitter blame games over and over again..
    I think if the vendor went against policy and agreed to hush it up, they definitely share the responsibility. Or their employee does (has he/she quit yet?)

  5. I couldn’t agree with Joseph more. Having supervised many employees over the year, the best thing to do is come clean…..Not always the easiest thing to do, but certainly the most honorable. As a boss, I have a lot more respect for the those who come forward and acknowledge their mistakes vs the ones who try to hide them.

  6. Joseph! I love your deconstructing of the issues! You are so right! I have printed your comment to have as a reference! Very insightful! Thank you for your continued support!

  7. It’s like dealing with children isn’t it? They know lying is “wrong” but eventually all fib. Until there is a fool-proof character test we can administer, people will continue to let us down.

    What protected you in this situation were the systems you had in place. Signed PO’s, invoices from vendors … these safety nets served their purpose. Be thankful for that!

    As to the staff member, depending on his/her track record I may have given another chance … but I totally understand your stand. Same thing goes for the vendor. What’s that saying? “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

    Having said that, I’ve axed vendors for less.

  8. First of all, no, lying is not acceptable, but trying to fix a problem so your boss won’t get upset and fire you might be. This sounds more like a boss/employee relationship problem to me. An open line of communication with mutual respect is essential in a business setting. If employees feel comfortable that they are not expected to be perfect and that they can come to the boss with questions and/or problems without getting their heads bitten off, then they will communicate better with the boss. I have had a small business for 15 years and have had the same employees for a majority of that time. I know it is because we have mutual respect and good communication between boss and employee. It’s the only way!

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    Arne: thanks for the input and yes, am more aggravated about the local vendor response to be truthful.

    sandra: I appreciate your comments. My employees make mistakes everyday as do I. I have NEVER had one try and hide it from me when it is a monetary mistake. Nor, does being “afraid” of coming to a boss constitute sending in a PO without approval EVER in my book nor working a “deal” with one of my company’s vendors. I would not be running a successful business if I allowed this to occur. This was icing on the proverbial cake. The employee was gone before I even discovered this issue. No one expects anyone to be perfect and I emphasize finding a solution to the “problem” every day. They all know this is the best way…but NOT to the extent of covering up the truth or entering into back door deals with people I do busines with. I may have higher standards to keep than most people perhaps..but this is never ok in my book..If someone feels to scared to come to a boss, then they should not be working for that person. As you say ‘fixing a problem” is one thing, but lying to cover it up and falsifying purchase orders is not considered “fixing” the problem in my book. It is called dishonesty. I work in an industry where people have to trust me and my employees. We are in their homes. It is not a retail situation. If there is no trust, then my business is not viable. Honestly, I have never had a problem like this before in 11 yrs and hope to not have it again.

  10. Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive. (Sir Walter Scott).

    Your vendor made an error in judgment in becoming a co-conspirator with your former employee.

    Accountability is # 1 in all dealings. Screw ups are bound to happen. That’s just life. How one chooses to deal with screw ups reveals character.

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    It amazes me and shocks me how some people think it is “ok” to completely ignore company policy because they are “afraid” of getting into trouble. People! This was a grown adult!! My teenagers understand consequences of actions..why cannot an adult? A few people think I am the bad guy because have somehow “intimidated” this poor person?? What a joke! If you are intimidated by your boss, then quit. Last I checked was a free country right? Some people are simply intimidated by a boss who has expectations and sets norms to follow. Whoa..what a concept! Geesh!

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