How to Create a 'No Lying Zone' in Your Company

Don Tennant
Slide Show

Why IT Projects Fail

Early warning signs to help you recognize and address problems before catastrophic failure occurs.

The American writer Austin O'Malley once said, "Those who think it permissible to tell white lies soon grow color blind." If that's true, it goes a long way toward explaining why so many companies get themselves into so many legal predicaments, from a failure to deliver on promises made in an ERP implementation, to a failure to abide by a country's visa and tax laws.


In my recent post, "Is the Ideal 'How-to' Manual for Business Leaders Divinely Inspired?," I wrote about Dave Anderson, a car-salesman-turned-leadership-guru and author who argues that the best leadership principles a business can follow are those that are found in the Bible. One of those principles is truthfulness, and he made it clear that he, like O'Malley, sees white lies as the seed of the tree of deception. When I spoke with Anderson a couple of weeks ago, I asked him if a white lie is ever excusable, like when the intent is to avoid hurting someone's feelings. He said he gets that question a lot, and insisted that a white lie is never acceptable:

My big problem with white lies is when you start to justify them in one area, then they become easier to justify in another and another. This is kind of a trick, I guess, of the enemy of Christ, in that we start to sanitize things. We start to classify sins: OK, we've got "whopper," we've got "white," we've got somewhere in between. And then pretty soon we've got the white-lie version of adultery, and the white-lie version of theft. We can dumb it down, and sanitize it, and put a nicer label on it, and rationalize it, and justify it. In a leadership position, whether it's white lies, or keeping commitments, or whatever, you're on display. Everything you do is under a magnifying glass, and everything you say has the potential to elevate or devastate; to earn respect or to lose it; to enhance your presence or to cheapen it. So there is more expected of leaders. To whom much is given, much is required, so when you're in a leadership position, you are held to a higher standard. You are under scrutiny. If you don't like that, you've got to get out of leadership, because it comes with the territory.

Anderson has come up with some tips to help business leaders create a "no lying zone" in their companies:


  • 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. 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. 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?"

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Sep 7, 2011 10:46 AM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says:

This advice is a recipe for divorce.

- "Tell the truth at all costs"

"Do these jeans make me look fat?"  - easy, the answer is always "no" (the jeans hide the fat).  Honesty is preserved.

If your wife is looking for a fight, she can ask the question this way:

"Do I look fat?"

Unless your wife does not look fat, you have two choices.  Lie.  Or tell the truth.

- "Don't give false impressions."

"Do I look fat?"

Answer: "Yes, and unfortunately jeans won't be able to conceal it.  Under no circumstances do you look skinny."

Likely response:"You'll be hearing from my attorney."

Don, I think we've found another area of disagreement.  There are times when you should lie your @ss off and keep a poker face.  This is one of them.

Here is the correct response:

"Do I look fat?"

Answer: "What???   Seriously???  You, Fat??? I can't believe you'd ask me such a question!  Who in their right mind would consider you fat! ??"

And if she is looking for a fight:

"Just answer the question, yes or no, do I look fat?"

Answer:"Absolutely not."  Lie, lie, lie.  And lie some more.  Live to fight another day.

Sep 7, 2011 11:02 AM Su Su  says: in response to R. Lawson

Your advices looks like recipe to success

As you said, when profit is main success criteria, you have to make lying less profitable

Just preaching won't help.

Sep 7, 2011 11:19 AM Su Su  says: in response to R. Lawson

>>>>"Do I look fat?"

Answer: "What???   Seriously???  You, Fat??? I can't believe you'd ask me such a question!  Who in their right mind would consider you fat! ??"


It reminded me that Friends episode where Ross and Rachel was training Chandler ...LOL. Roy your answer is wrong too - you don't talk that much. Definitely not so many counter questions What???   Seriously???  You, Fat??? ....

If you think one second and then say No - you are in trouble too. You just reply within few microseconds a big NO. Like Rachel did to the question --Does size matter?

Sep 7, 2011 11:32 AM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says: in response to Su

I have an even better one.

"Do I look fat?"

Go "mafia" and answer with a question followed by a threat: "Did somebody call you fat?  Tell me who!  I'll cut their tongue out!"

You come across protective, tough, and genuinely upset that anyone would dare call your wife fat.  If you are in room with other people, point to any guy you can take in a fight (like the old guy in the rocking chair) and exclaim "Was it him!  Tell me now, I'll show him!"  You are guaranteed to never get that question again. 

Sep 7, 2011 1:15 PM Don Tennant Don Tennant  says: in response to R. Lawson

"Don, I think we've found another area of disagreement."

I just wrote a blog post about what Dave Anderson espouses, Roy. I never said I agree with what he espouses. In fact, I disagree with a lot of what he espouses.

Sep 7, 2011 2:17 PM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says: in response to Don Tennant

Just having some light-hearted fun.

I agree that honesty is the best policy... with some room for white/innocent lies (such as "no honey, you don't look fat").

Sep 13, 2011 2:25 PM truthseeker truthseeker  says:

I always try to be truthful and ethical. But many people find it awkward. When they lie, they expect implicit surrender. If I try to even make correction or improve things, on face people try to prove me wrong as much as possible going very far to suppress me. I try not to expose their lies or cheating but only to correct it at as low level as possible. but people seldom give up on lies and even higher ups agree with them as they have better raport with higher up. Still if I continue to fight  sometimes they surrender on face but do not get convinced internally and never act heartily with an agreement later they remove me from the project with a false reason. But basically it is due to their ego being hurt. Usually they are my seniors or managers. Being a contractor I can not give them any good fight. My employer may suffer if I spoil client relations to that extent so then I give up. My intention is always to be faithful to company and its customer and produce good work. But I loose popularity for due to my idealism. People who know the truth of the case internally feel for me but they seldom take my side publicly.  What advice do you have for me.

Sep 13, 2011 5:38 PM Marcio Costa Marcio Costa  says:

I truly believe that to be honest and sincere is the only way to make things predictable, avoiding myths and so far.

But you guys are being way too simplistic here.

Honestly - a society will never survive without hipocrisy. It is just a matter of how politics works.

Even in your personal relationships. Throw the first stone who never lied to his kids when they come with though questions.

Is religion a true? Never. If it was, how you could decide, with so many religions all distinct between them telling you that that religion is... true? Besides the fact it requires a lot of literature - metaphors and ironies - in order to work. Are metaphors and ironies the 'true'?

When you say something wrong because you ignore the subject, are you being a liar?

Just think in how many lies you have told today. Or how a fact told by someone to you becomes completely different at the end after you told it to someone, who has told to some other, etc, and so on.

The true question is - can you deliberately influence people's minds to believe in something that you really know that it is a lie and will take them to a lot of mistakes and losts only to serve your interests? Of course not. Although is another way of how politics works. Some call it 'ideology'. What is waaay too distinct that saying 'you should never lie'.

A true dilemma is not 'lie or not lie', but 'Am I doing or saying something only thinking in my own interest or not'? You would be really surprised when you notice that your brain always think in your own interest. This is not a lie...



Sep 13, 2011 6:11 PM Paul Donovan Paul Donovan  says: in response to R. Lawson

The better answer to the fat question would be, "do you think you look fat dear?"

One thing, especially in IT that I see is that IT may lie about funcitonality or simplify the process too much so that it appears they are lying. They do this because people may not understand the complexity and it is easy to "lie" to move on, since 9 times out of 10, you will not get called out on it.

Truth is the best policy, but the tough part is making people accept the truth.

"have you considered sweatpants" ..... that would be a divorce reply!!!

Sep 14, 2011 10:19 AM Keith Ujvary Keith Ujvary  says:

It is so curious that so many people think that lying is just a normal part of doing business, especially the software business.

When I first started with my current employer over 10 years ago I was asked to work as technical lead on a project one afternoon and then had to attend a meeting with the customer the following morning. I was told "Tell them you have been working on this for several weeks." Of course I wasn't able to pull that one off credibly and the customer asked to have me removed from the project. Fortunately, I was not removed and I did a good job and have a great relationship with that customer still.

But I learned the lesson. Any time that I have been asked to lie to a customer about something, the most I would commit to was that I would not volunteer anything if not asked, but I would not lie if asked directly. Even that feels very uncomfortable.

The conventional wisdom says that someone who will lie for you will also lie to you and I have seen that is true. Too often I have seen my bosses and colleagues mislead customers and even employees by misleading without technically telling a provable lie. If the recipient of the information walked away with a mistaken impression, well then they must've interpreted what was said incorrectly. They seemed to derive some twisted satisfaction in pulling one over on someone.

Of course there have also been some embarassing situations where the customer knew the truth and knew they were being misled. I must admit to experiencing a little Schadenfreude watching the misleader squirming to explain the dicrepancy.

I would love to work in company where truth was king. I wonder how many of those exist?

Sep 14, 2011 6:34 PM Paul Donovan Paul Donovan  says: in response to Marcio Costa

I do not think it is too simplistic to not lie.  Where it gets too complicated is when you lie to avoid "truths" that people need to know.  Whether Santa Claus is real or not is a lot different than letting people know the truth about how they are performing, or if a layoff is imminent.  Presentation of the truth is the comlexity.   Total honest disclosure cannot always occur (Top Secret dealings, layoffs), but you cannot deny it outright, and then when it is announced, be surprised when you lost your credibility. 

My father had high level clearance, and you could tell soemthing was upsetting him, and he could not tell us what, but told us to "forgive his mood".   When the "secret" became public knowledge, I understood his actions and emotion.  He did not tell me what it was about as he could not, but I understood why it was so important and why his mood was different. 

Using past lies to justify continued lies is not a good reason to perpetuate lying in business.  Ignorance and apathy are just as bad as lying, as you show you do not care and are not worth following as a leader and inspirerer in a company.

Sep 14, 2011 6:40 PM Tim Tim  says:

-->Selling a product at the right price (rather than a grossly inflated one that you are pretty sure you can get away with)

I don't know about this one:  who defines what the 'right price' is? 

I thnk a lot of people make the assumption that price should somehow be reflective of cost, but that's only one factor to consider.  Really, price should be adjusted to optimize profit for the company in the long term:  if you have a product that everyone wants and no one else makes, why not sell it for as much as you can get for it?  Sure, you should also consider the ill effects allegations of price gouging might have on your company and the social responsibilites your organization might have in the communities it operates, but price should reflect the value of the product, not the cost.

It's a great example of a relative, rather than an absolute, truth.  What the 'right price' is depends on who you ask.

Sep 15, 2011 8:34 AM Squidtto Squidtto  says:

Lies in the business word are common, no matter how much talk there is of integrity.

I am a Senior IT Manager at a company for the past three (3) years and it can be said that I am a square peg in a round hole and proud. I was hired not only for my talent but because of my reputation as a person who stands up for what is right.  Of course I fell for the executive lies as I looked at the new perks I was getting, and being nave to what was really behind those suits and glasses, or maybe I just really wanted to believe there were more people like myself in the world.

The time came when I was asked to make a decision that not only compromised my integrity and ability to sleep at night but that of the company as well, so I refused and this dirty task was passed to another more willing to move up the corporate ladder. Needless to say for months I was ignored, shunned from meetings, had projects taken away, hell I was even thrown out of a meeting I organized. And in the end when the fog is lifted and the yes men remove their brown lips what I did was right and prevailed.

Doing the right thing/not lying is not an easy choice by any means but it is one all the same, and when you close that office door and open the door to your home and look at the mirror its always going to be you.

Sep 15, 2011 9:09 AM Bill Bill  says: in response to truthseeker

My advice to you is to keep telling the truth.  The price you pay at work, in social settings and anywhere else pales to the personal toll that comes from compromising your morals.  YOU know better - so now you are compelled to act.  Others may or may not learn from or be inspired by your actions, but you still have the obligation to yourself to do what you know is right.

In the final scene, you will be alone.  Whether you believe you will face your Creator or The End - you will face it with only yourself and the sum of the choices you've made.  Make them ones you can believe in.

Sep 15, 2011 9:31 AM Keith Ujvary Keith Ujvary  says: in response to Squidtto

Nice to know there are some kindred spirits out there.  I printed out the four how-to tips and left them in a common area in our office just to see what happens. 

It can be somewhat satisfying to have your decision to be truthful proven right in the end, but after 10+ years where I am even the delayed "I told you so" opportunities are not much consolation.  Just once I'd like to see someone suffer some consequences for lying.

Sep 18, 2011 8:44 AM Software Bear Software Bear  says:

The title explicitly states, "...in Your Company."  Whatever remarks you dolts make to your wife about her obesity are not germane to the article and are hopefully deleted from the comments section herein.


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