If My Boss Can Lie, Why Can't I?

Last Updated Jul 1, 2011 4:14 PM EDT

A couple of weeks ago, I posted what I thought would be an entirely uncontroversial post: "10 Times It's OK to Lie to Your Boss."

For the record, here are the 10 times that I listed in that post:

It seemed to me that these all fell within the social norms of corporate culture and the tradition of telling white lies in situations where the truth would be hurtful. To my utter amazement, a number of people treated the post as if it were recommending that everyone go out and shoot homeless people, or something.

Incredible!

Some of the complainers were apparently managers terrified of the idea that their employees are lying to them or that my post might convince their employees to lie to them. Hey, let me set your mind at ease, guys. One, your employees are lying to you already. Two, they would be doing it regardless of what I write in this blog.

Other complainers appear to be under the impression that it's possible to get through life without lying. Maybe so, but you'll end up causing a lot of pain blurting out every "truth" that comes into your head. (E.g. Go ahead and tell your wife she "looks fat" in that outfit.) The idea is so naive that it's laughable.

Still others seem to think that it's not lying if you deflect a question or just leave out information that you don't want to share. That's called lying by omission. As long as you're leaving the person believing a falsehood, then you're still lying, you're just being cowardly about it.

You want some truth? Here: the corporate world is full of lies.

Most advertisements are lies. Beer doesn't make you sexy, it gives you a paunch. Technology doesn't automatically make companies productive. Quite the contrary; it often makes companies less productive. Car brand "A" is as safe as car brand "B". Face cream can't do a damn thing about your wrinkles. And so forth, ad infinitum.

Would the working world be better off if every advertisement told the truth? Beats me. But the fact is that ads are going to continue to be exactly what they today, for now, and for the foreseeable future.

If you're in an industry that advertises, you are party to lying, if not outright, at least in some form of exaggeration. And those lies are to your own advantage, because your salary is being paid by sales that took place because of those lies.

Not that you should feel bad about that. It's just part of living in the real world, rather than trying to live in some ethical fantasy world.

Similarly, bosses lie to their employees all the time. They hire you to work 40 hours and then give you the stink-eye if you don't work 60. They say that everyone is getting a fair salary, but the boss's pet is making 50% more than the guy in the next cubicle who works twice as hard. They say stuff like "there's no truth to the rumor that there might be a layoff." Which, in fact, means there will be a layoff.

Would the working world be better if that stuff didn't happen? Sure. Absolutely. And it will be that way... when the managers are replaced by cute little angels with pink fairy wings.

If you're in management and you're not sharing the exact truth with all your employees, when asked, about what's going on that might affect their job, salary and future, you are lying by omission. It's no good claiming that it's company policy to keep that stuff secret. "I was only following orders" is no excuse.

There are entire industries where lying is an integral part of the business model. The mortgage industry, for instance, grew like crazy, in a large part by steering homeowners to loans that they couldn't afford and which had larger fees. Then they packaged up the bad loans and lied to investors about them.

Yeah, we all know how that ended... And yet, where are the jails holding the CEOs that created those business plans and the politicians who enabled them through insane deregulation? They must be somewhere in cloud cuckoo land, because they sure aren't anywhere on this planet.

Here's some more truth for you: the people who are lying to you, every day in every way, are the very people who are the most invested in convincing you to make like George Washington.

Much of the business world, and all of the political world, is designed to take advantage of the fact that you -- the every day, average worker/voter -- is ready to hold yourself to a higher standard than is expected of managers... and especially of executives.

Maybe that's a good thing. But it's one thing to be honest but quite another to have "chump" tattooed across your forehead.

I tell the truth (appropriately and kindly) to the people with whom I work with and for. People who know me know I can be trusted.

But I'm not going to be mean and petty by telling an unpleasant truth at the wrong time to the wrong person. And I'm sure as heck not going to rat out a co-worker simply to kiss up to a boss, which is apparently some people's idea of "ethics."

When I see a system that institutionalizes lying, I try to avoid it. But if I ended up being forced to interact with a lying sack of BS, I would feel no compunction whatsoever dishing out the same in return, if telling the truth would mean taking food out of my children's mouths.

READERS: Feel free to disagree, but don't try to BS me by saying that you're 100% truthful in all your interactions. Because that's simply not possible.