Unfortunately, being asked to lie remains in the top 10 of ethical dilemmas employees have had to face in the workplace. Your dilemma is compounded, however, when the request is from your boss — the individual upon whom your livelihood depends. You are now staring down a lose-lose scenario.
Any professional who is paying attention is fully aware of the culpability for their actions on the job today. And, they know they can no longer rely upon the safety net "My boss told me to do it." Employees have no immunity against unethical activity in the workplace and, if asked, they will have to testify in the courtroom, under oath, whatever they did, heard, knew or saw.
In a perfect world, of course an employee would say "no" to an unethical request of any kind. But, we don't live in a perfect world. That same employee would be the first to tell you when the request is from the individual you report to, "it ain't that easy."
I have yet to hear a defensible reason to ask an employee to lie for the boss. Likewise, I have yet to hear an employee satisfactorily explain why he or she absolutely had to do so. Even the "telephone white lie" can be circumvented by the clever word "unavailable," followed by an offer to pass on the message. Remember the adage: If you tell a lot of white lies, you soon become color blind.
All lies are intentionally deceptive messages — explicitly intended to mislead. There are two primary ways to lie: to conceal and to falsify. By concealing, the liar withholds information without actually saying anything untrue. When falsifying (including exaggerating), the liar not only withholds information, but also misleads by presenting false information as if it were true.
A lie is only a short-term fix anyhow — followed closely by cover up and clean up. And, it's a lot of work. President Abraham Lincoln once said: "I would make a terrible liar because I have a terrible memory!"
Does it matter if you lie?
It matters big time — because you have compromised your personal integrity and put your professional reputation in jeopardy. Lying also undermines trust and trust is what forms the basis of our professional relationships. When trust takes a hit, so does constructive communication.
Should you speak up or comply?
Your answer directly affects your credibility. When you are complicit in a lie, you signal that your professionalism can be compromised and your ethics are negotiable. This is a slippery slope.
In addition, to remain silent without protest while someone is being deceived is to commit a lie of omission.
A few cautions: Be careful not to confuse compliance with loyalty. The blind allegiance of yesteryear is no longer considered a virtue. The new loyalty today is wrapped into a dedicated and reciprocal commitment to "do the right thing" — for yourself, your company and your boss (and in that order).
And acting "for the greater good" is hollow as well.
This justification was posed in a recent episode of the TV series "American Crime" when the manager who runs a shelter for abused women asked a social worker to misrepresent her number of referrals to receive additional funding. Couch it any way you wish — it is still a lie.
What should you say when you speak up?
Now is not the time to sugarcoat the issue. Nor is it the time to act righteous (coming out with your ethical guns blazing) aggravating an already stressful situation. "I'm uncomfortable with your request" gets this truth-telling conversation started and safely launches you into taking the following steps:
• Repeat the request simply and succinctly. "In other words, you wish me to lie to the client for you?" clearly states your objection and the request may be withdrawn. Follow this by offering to handle it another way.
But, what if your boss doubles down? Then, you have to take a definitive stand.
• Say "no," and give your rock-solid reasons — finishing with these powerful words: "I may have to be held accountable some day." There is no comeback to this professional, respectful defense.
• Document the entire incident (for your protection).
If your boss threatens to fire you, you have no choice but to take your documentation and move forward with appropriate personnel. And, you may wish to contact an attorney to see if you have any recourse for wrongful termination.
While it is not your responsibility to judge your boss, it is your responsibility to look out for your company's best interests. The best way to do this is to establish your ethical boundaries at the beginning of your professional relationships, stick to them and continue to draw a line in the sand whenever your integrity is being challenged.
One CEO said he was interviewing a candidate for a sales position and she suddenly said, "I will never lie for you, but you also should know I will never lie to you." He found her candor refreshing and hired her on the spot!
Nan DeMars is a workplace ethicist and author, and president of Executary Services, an ethics training, search and consulting firm in Edina.