What if the boss tells me to lie?

That question in the headline has come to me at least a dozen times, but only four took the form, "My boss asked me to lie, what do I do?" I remember them all and my advice. 

You find a new job, meanwhile, don't lie!

One of the key ethical problems cited by clients also involves lying, but takes the form of inaccurate reporting from employees. People, it seems, prefer to leave bad news on the editing floor when it comes to reporting to their bosses. Yes, the boss asking someone to lie is more troubling. Lying always causes more trouble, doesn't it?

Today’s news claims a solar energy company padded sales reports at managers’ direction. The padding, in turn, gave investors an inflated valuation. The stock tanked as you might imagine—investors tend to punish liars.*

One cannot help but wonder if, when the falsified reports became known and revenues adjusted, those aware of the lies had taken their profits. That’s a question for the Feds--I think it’s called fraud, but it’s indicative of a larger problem about which my clients complain: inaccurate reporting in general is an ethical problem.

Who can blame liars if their bosses commanded the lies? We can. “I was only following orders” is no defense.

Sadly, so many of us – everyone, really – has a story of reporting accurately only to find themselves playing the role of the wounded messenger. No, I am not saying that lying in a report is excusable by way of so many examples of a bad manager yelling at us for giving bad, albeit truthful, news.

On one hand, we both know it’s true that if one bites a direct report for a painfully accurate report, they will no longer receive accurate reports painful or not. Reward the truth and you’ll get more of it.

On the other hand, the boss cannot do much to solve a problem if the problem hides behind lies. Lying is pretty much never good, and especially not in a report to one’s boss!

Questions for The Ethics Award

  • How do encourage your direct reports to give you bad news?
  • And on the other end, how does your org encourage you to report with painful accuracy?

*Source: The Wall Street Journal, 23 May 2017.

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