Honesty is the Best Policy.

Everyone I know has grown up hearing that. It’s the moral of so many stories like The Boy who Cried Wolf, Pinnochio, The Honest Woodcutter, and a horribly misguided story about Santa Vs. … Satan in a leotard? In fact, most children’s stories have a part of the story where a character tells a lie and meets some undesired fate or the main character is confronted by the lies and is forced to come clean or… I don’t know, be burned at the stake? Even keeping secrets is depicted in stories, shows, and movies as being difficult, burdensome, or carrying a contagion that causes chronic insanitosis. I think the most classic examples would be Macbeth (Lady Macbeth goes crazy and can’t stop seeing spots on her hands no matter how many times she washes them) and The Tell-tale Heart (dude kills creepy old guy, shoves him under floorboards, and goes insane).

Our culture preaches honesty, but in practice, the average person tells about one lie a day. There was an article floating around in space that reported a shocking finding – more than half of all people can’t even go ten minutes without telling at least one lie. This article is an embellishment of something Discovery channel did – they taped two strangers speaking and played the tape back to people, most of whom believed they had been honest during the conversations. These people were purportedly “shocked” to hear all of the little lies sprinkled into the conversation. Now, it really depends on what their definition of “lying” is. It appears to have been “whatever the subject says is a lie is a lie”, which means “who the hell even knows?!” Now, a story like that is just exciting to hear – comic books were right! You can’t trust anyone. It’s you against the world, so stock up on guns and canned goods, America.

Of course, this “study” was financed by the same people who brought us shows like The Hunt for Bigfoot, Ancient Aliens, and of course, Amish Mafia. Let’s not forget that they own History Channel and Animal Planet, which tend to air shows almost exclusively about hunting for ghosts, ghost pets, Bigfoot, mermaids, UFOs, conspiracy theories, psychics, fortune tellers, and probably Victorian-era Unicorns by now. The point I’m making is that their study, crazily enough, may not be entirely truthful. Though they present themselves as fact-loving truth-bangers, they’re in the entertainment biz and the truth is often really boring and/or unwanted.

According to research conducted at Michigan State University, by people who at least have the good sense to back up possible lies with numbers, they found that most people felt that they were generally honest while a few bastards were bragging about their prolific lying. (It sort of begs the question – if a pathological liar admits to being a liar, can you trust that they aren’t lying?) They found that people tell about one lie of any significance per day. Another study found that most people tended to underestimate the trustworthiness of a stranger. Thus, there is the problem in the spirit of the adage “a thief thinks everyone steals”. We know that we aren’t always honest, so we suspect that others aren’t honest either.

Being honest about every single thing you ever think or do is just nutty when you think about it for more than twenty seconds. That was the premise for The Invention of Lying. Other than it being difficult or downright cruel at times to be completely honest, is it even something worth striving for? Is honesty, at least most of the time, the best policy?

It is shocking to see executives in big corporations making stupendously stupid or downright evil decisions. It’s even more shocking when such behavior is not typically met with any sort of negative consequence by the head of the company. The golden parachute, as it’s called, provides many executives with a very soft landing should they do anything so evil or stupid that the company feels the need to politely ask them to take a pile of money and leave the building, please. I will briefly mention that some executives are dismissed because they blew the whistle on some really stupid practice of the company and in that case, it would seem like that golden parachute is more like hush money.

How do such people live with themselves? How can the people who were behind the mortgage crisis live with themselves knowing that they were part of something that would cause so much pain and hardship around the world. It turns out that these people may be such prolific liars that they don’t actually know how much lying they are really doing. According to a research study available on the Social Science Research Network, many people who were lying about something would still consider themselves honest people, but when they were made to realize that no, actually they weren’t honest people, they did commit some effort to being a slightly less dishonest bastard. This could make a lot of sense when you stop to remember that it was a whole lot of people who weren’t CEOs who contributed to the 2007 recession.

The real estate agents who showed houses families couldn’t afford encouraged them to apply for loans which had payments they’d struggle to meet. The loans were approved by the people looking at the application, people who are perfectly capable of simple math and could see that the numbers would indicate that there is no way the person applying for the loan would be able to afford to pay on it, unless they started selling drugs on the side or something. No one in the process up to this point is stupid; they knew these loans were risky and that there was a chance that the person receiving the loan would possibly default. These loans were tagged somehow as “high risk”.

Now, we have people who are also not stupid sitting on a pile of high-risk loans, which I’m willing to bet was more than a little uncomfortable. If they are going to sell a package of loans to another bank, they don’t want to sell the loans that are the most likely to achieve profits; they’ll want to sell the ones they’re not quite so sure of. So, instead of describing these high-risk loans as “money most likely to vanish from your chauffeurs”, they were bundled with some good loans and sold as a decent package. What happened then seems to me to be like a game of hot potato; the bank sitting on a bunch of bad loans didn’t want to have them when the borrower defaulted. But, then a whole bunch of people started missing mortgage payments, and the defaults started to happen. Foreclosure became a norm and the real estate economy froze. The borrowers were halfheartedly blamed for applying for loans they knew they couldn’t afford, but it was so incredibly clear that banks had been the ones so stupid as to push these people into loans they couldn’t afford.

And what happened to the bank executives behind the lying game? What happened when it was revealed that they had made it a policy to issue bad loans and to sell them to other financial institutions as good investments? What happened when the world realized that the numbers banks had been quoting to each other had been inflated and hollow? Not a lot. At every level of this horrible misuse of public trust, dishonesty was incentivized. The real estate agents were selling pricier houses, the loan officers were selling more loans, and the banks looked like they were building up a sizable portfolio of steady and easy revenue. At any level, if you could make the numbers go up, you were promoted.

When the inevitable happened and the economy went “kerplop”, people were afraid to do much talking. PBS did a piece on this called The Untouchables and the workings of the recession on the financial sector’s side. If you want someone who was on the inside, a person who was tasked with specifically making sure that the company’s employees weren’t doing anything really stupid that could hurt the business, then we turn to Eileen Foster from Bank of America. She explains that during her investigation, she found that lying was not only the norm, it was a virtue. When she pushed employees who were engaged in shady dealings, she received push-back from higher-ups. According to her accounts, executives issued orders for employees to not put anything in writing about what they were doing specifically so that Foster wouldn’t be able to access it. At a point, I figure you get tired of it, know that something really bad is about to happen and no one around you cares, so you throw your hands up and just give up. The best you can do is brace for impact.

Her story is one that I think only scratches at something deeper – employees who report fraudulent activities that happen to be benefiting the company somehow are an annoyance, not an asset. They certainly don’t have any golden parachutes and often receive very little thanks. It’s rare for a whistle-blower to gain as much esteem as a hustler. Even today, executives lie, cheat, and steal. The way our corporate cultures are set up, the ends are important, but the means to them, not so much. This paper summarizes work being done at Harvard Business School to investigate the inner workings of bad business juju. Essentially, certain pay practices will encourage cheating and lying. Honest workers won’t get the bonuses that a worker who is fudging things to meet corporate goals will get. Honest workers won’t be getting the same results because they aren’t fudging the numbers. It’s not that dishonest people are just better at doing the job, it’s that honest workers are following protocol and probably not cutting as many corners. Is it any surprise that there is a correlation between being wealthy and being dishonest?

I wrote this article because of my own experience with workplace cheating. At every single job I have had, I’ve seen people cutting corners and behaving badly, but being rewarded for it. At my first job, I was a cashier at a retail clothing store. One of the requirements was to get a minimum of 2 credit card applications per month. I was always very keen on understanding what I’m selling before I encourage other people to give it a whirl. When I looked at the credit card terms and conditions (and this was before the laws passed under President Obama), they were horrendous. There were fees on top of fees, retroactive increases, and penalties for not using the card enough. I refused to sign any credit card applications and anyone who asked me about it, I told them to read the terms very carefully. During my entire time at that job, I only ever got 1 credit card application and that was from a lady who wanted to renew her card (for whatever reason). Yet, the people around me were signing these people up like there was no tomorrow. The applications were lengthy and held up lines, but that didn’t phase my former coworkers. Actually, many of them signed people up for credit cards without even IDing them.

I and a few others there were never rewarded for following protocol and providing customer service (which was kind of our role). I was actually screamed at by a lady when I asked to see her ID. That was protocol. Another time, I refused to ring up a customer because she had no way of proving her identity. She said her wallet was in the car, and I said “you can either get your wallet, or you’ll have to pay in cash”. In my mind, yes, she could have been telling the truth, but I had no way of knowing that she didn’t steal the credit card. I offered every means of proving her identity, including just handing her a piece of paper and asking her to sign her name, but she had an excuse for why she couldn’t do that either. She left as I wasn’t willing to sell anything to her and phoned in a complaint against me to my manager. I was promptly fired. In their minds, I wasn’t meeting my credit card application quota anyway, so I just wasn’t a valuable employee.

Later, I held a job that required a number of appointments you had to make in the “field” as it was called. My role was to visit people’s homes and to check on them. I always did this and it was lengthy, created a lot of paperwork, and I was always dead tired when I got home. Twelve hour days were not uncommon and I typically had to work weekends, not because I was told to, but to meet the needs of the people I was serving. I saw my coworkers who were both older than I was and had much, much more experience than I did actually filling out home visit slips (sort of a receipt given to summarize the home appointment), and trashing the pink one meant for the resident. They were completely fudging their work. They did do some home appointments, but even those, they didn’t even get out of the car. When I told my supervisor about this, I was given more work to do. I didn’t get a holiday bonus that year.

Even later, when I worked in Analytics, I held to a firm set of standards. I wanted my reports to be accurate and true to the best of my ability and knowledge. Of course, that meant that some of my reports weren’t so happy. Some of them showed activity that a company executive wouldn’t want to see. I was told, literally and seriously, to just “leave out” negative data. Management tried to explain this as the data not being relevant to the question the client asks. When I pushed harder to see why we wouldn’t want to share information like, I don’t know, their revenue dropping or costs skyrocketing, I was given more work to do. I think you can see a pattern by now. I called coworkers out for misrepresenting data or just flat out making shit up, but each time, they would stammer out some excuse or another. The truth was that they were too overworked to do it right. If they didn’t cut corners, they’d be living in the office. I expressed my concerns to upper management about our reporting only looking smart and fancy, but being a bunch of lies poorly taped together with a big bow on top. I proposed solutions that were shot down because “that would cost money” or “that’s just not how we do things around here”. In reality, being that I was an Analyst who did cost analyses on a daily basis, I showed management that it would actually cost less to do reporting the way I recommended it because it wouldn’t take as much time. What’s crazy was that people were spending huge amounts of time doing math gymnastics to flip a negative number into a positive one. Just by doing math correctly, I estimated that the average worker would be able to service 20 more accounts per year. Of course, that also meant that the company had to do its job and that the analysts would have to be the ones to make sure that the company was doing its job.

Eventually, I came across information that showed that my company was not saving a certain client a single dime, but rather that particular client would actually be better off without us. I actually felt embarrassed when I looked at how little we actually did for them and how freaking expensive our invoices were. When it came time to deliver the report, I knew I would be sending it to a person who absolutely did not want to hear that news and would very likely not pass it along or act on it. This company was spending millions of dollars on a service we just flat out weren’t providing to them. We had resources to do such a thing, but the client already had those same resources. We were literally charging them to do something they were already doing on their own. I sent a cautiously-worded email pointing this out quite gently and sent along my report, which showed that they were losing money by contracting with us. Oh boy, did I ever get chewed out. But, I wasn’t fired until much later, when I stumbled across some worker data of a client company.

As it happened, they were paying hundreds of employees wages significantly below the federal minimum wage and requiring them to work unpaid overtime. By the way, both of those things are super illegal. What’s worse is that my company was facilitating that. We were actually putting these people into jobs that paid what we obviously knew were breaking at least a few labor laws. Conveniently, I couldn’t find any tax information on these workers anywhere. I’m not saying that it didn’t exist, but I find it hard to believe that the IRS would see a company paying about 300 or so people less than $6 per hour and be totally fine with that. So, I was in kind of an awkward situation. Here, the client was doing something obviously illegal, but so was my company. If I blew the whistle on one, the other would go along with them. I went to my manager who basically told me to never bring it up again. I went to a higher-up who gave me more work to do in response. I then went to an even higher-up with this information. A few weeks later, I was fired without any explanation, but given a severance package that wasn’t in my contract, also without explanation.

The moral of the story is that honesty is obviously not the best policy. In some cases, it’s cruel to tell someone that their father didn’t die peacefully in his sleep, but rather screaming in agony until the last minute. In other cases, it just isn’t important to tell a person that the food they’re serving is bland and slightly burnt. Lying isn’t itself a bad thing. It’s what we do as social animals to earn acceptance by others. I can’t say that I’m some kind of lone crusader fighting for the truth because I lie too. I’ve also looked the other way more times than I like to admit, and I hate myself for those times.

What I’m saying is that you have a choice to make and you must decide what you value above all else. You can’t always (or usually) be totally honest and achieve a great deal of success in your career. People want to hear what they want to hear, so lying in those roles is unavoidable if you are to gain any ounce of success. Even to a lesser degree, if you work in retail and have a situation like mine, lying might be the only way to keep your job. You might be one paycheck away from losing everything you have and looking the other way might be the only means of survival. If you adhere to a policy of honesty, you’re not going to get very far and that is a guarantee. The real question though is this: Is honesty more important to you than success?

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