It’s a conundrum. It’s a question of morality. It’s a question that may determine the direction of your career.
I’m not talking about a little white lie, here. Not one of the “I was away from my desk” variety. This is a big one. Let’s say your boss told the customer that a critical product was already shipped, knowing it was still sitting in your facilities. Or that she knowingly authorized the shipment of off-spec product to a customer, and is now inventing explanations rather than speaking the truth.
What should you do when your boss lies? Jump in and join him in the deception? Speak up and say “this is wrong?” Or stand on the sidelines (assuming you can) and watch the scenario unfold, hoping to avoid any and all blame and involvement?
Most of us chose the third option in our daily lives, but is it the right thing to do?
It’s your integrity on the line
It would be nice to think that you had no moral imperative in such a situation, but the bottom line is that your mere awareness creates one. Call it a “sin of omission, if you want.” Pretending you don’t know about it might protect you, but in your heart you will still know you could have done something to put it right. And while you don’t have to act instantaneously, you can’t delay for long – if you do, the lie is likely to multiply and the risk will become even higher that you’ll be sucked in.
There is really no question about the “right” thing to do. The problem is to accepting the risk and doing it.
Most of us will try to avoid, and if forced to make a decision we will join in like lemmings on the way to the cliff. Rationalizations abound. It’s in the shareholder’s interest to perpetuate the lie. I take orders from my boss. I’m not in charge.
But when it really comes down to it, the thing that drives us is FEAR. Fear of the consequences of speaking up.
Driven by Fear
Quite likely, your fear is perfectly rational. A boss who lies, is a boss who will take other unfair or immoral actions. Like seeking retribution for a perceived wrong. Or trying to turn the tables on you with an even bigger lie. If your boss has a track record of ruthless political behavior, the consequences of crossing her are likely to be severe.
That notches up your fear and further insures your silence and/or compliance.
You’re being manipulated. By a politician with skills and a merciless sense of self-preservation.
It’s in the movies
The boss I’ve been describing is little more than a classic schoolyard bully. Everyone despises him. Everyone looks forward to his demise. Yet, everyone is afraid of him. No one wants to stand up to the bully, fearing that they are simply nominating themselves to be the next hapless victim.
But everyone in the crowd of silent spectators cheers when someone finally does take on the bully. And if that someone somehow brings the bully down, the crowd cheers even more.
But film isn’t reality, and this isn’t a bloody nose we’re talking about. It’s your career. Your family. Your future. The stakes are indeed high.
What you choose to do is driven by your own conscience. Just know that part of being an adult is overcoming such fear. Stepping up to do the right thing. Fighting the good fight, even though you know you’re likely to lose.
The off-spec product
In a recent conversation, a friend relayed this true story of a situation that was unfolding in his office.
The story begins with his employer running into a severe problem getting a particular component for one of their products – a common enough occurrence.
Rather than going to customers and letting them know about the problem and perhaps offering them some options, the boss – in her infinite wisdom – decided to substitute an inferior item for a portion of customers’ orders. Her reasoning? Options cost money, but substitutes didn’t. I suppose behind that reasoning was the belief that if only 15% of the orders consisted of the inferior item, the customers would never notice.
No one stood up and said “this is wrong.” This particular boss had a track record of severely persecuting those that criticized her. Everyone was sure she’d fire anybody that dared to oppose her. So everyone in her department went along. Those that could get away with it stood on the sidelines, happily uninvolved but certainly aware. Those that were forced into it threw their support behind the lie.
What should they have done?
The lie would have worked if her assumptions had been correct. Unfortunately for the company several of their customers noticed something was wrong.
Once the lie had been delivered, however, there was no walking it back. The boss did what all liars do when confronted with the consequences of their fabrications – she lied again.
“We’re looking into it,” was the answer delivered to customers. The concept was to simply wait out the complaints under the belief that the customers would eventually forget about them. It might have worked, except one customer did some rudimentary testing, and while that didn’t lead all the way to the truth, it confirmed something was definitely amiss. The liar was now in a pickle, because there was no way to just buy enough time to get past the issue.
Now what should those on the sidelines do now? The stakes were getting higher and higher as the situation went from bad to worse.
“There was a problem in the factory. By accident, we mixed two grades of product and shipped it to you.” It was the next lie offered, one that was needed to back up the earlier ones. I’m sure the boss hoped this would be the end of it. She’d pay a claim from the customer, and life would return to normal.
But it wasn’t. The customer demanded to tour the area of the factory where the problem had occurred, to see how such an “accident” could have arisen and what the company was doing to make sure it never happened again. Do you think they smell a rat?
The liar and her entire staff now have a problem. The factory doesn’t report to them and, not surprisingly, they object to taking the fall for all these lies. Nobody is sure what will happen next.
The situation has escalated to a high level of risk. There is an important customer relationship in the balance. The deception, should it come out, is likely to make the rounds through the customer’s entire industry, damaging the firm’s reputation and impacting other relationships. There are a lot of careers on the line.
The scenario continues to unfold even today. If I was a betting man, I’d wager one of two things will happen. Either the lying boss will somehow bully the factory into taking the blame for the “mistake,” or she will use a scapegoat in her own department to take the fall for her fabrications.
Doing the right thing can be hard. It doesn’t come without risks, and sometimes you’ll pay the price for speaking out. The politically expedient thing to do is to avoid these types of situations, trying your best to stay on the sidelines and out of the fray, keeping silent to avoid drawing a bully’s attention. Rarely will things spiral out of control. Rarely will there be a price that everyone must pay.
But when it comes, it can be a disaster of epic proportions.
Your actions answer to your conscience alone. You decide what you can live with. You decide what is right and wrong. Just remember that silence and avoidance is precisely how a small injustice can turn into catastrophe.
Other Recent Posts:
This is the cover of my latest novel, PURSUING OTHER OPPORTUNITIES, released in April, 2014. This story marks the return of LEVERAGE characters Mark Carson and Cathy Chin, now going by the name of Matt and Sandy Lively and on the run from the FBI. The pair are working for a remote British Columbia lodge specializing in Corporate adventure/retreats for senior executives. When the Redhouse Consulting retreat goes horribly wrong, Matt finds himself pursuing kidnappers through the wilderness, while Sandy simultaneously tries to fend off an inquisitive police detective and an aggressive lodge owner.
My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.