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-- Through Silence!

In your opinion, does lying ever have a place in business? And if you answer with an emphatic 'No!', are you telling the truth?

by Azriel Winnett

We're back to the subject of ethics, more specifically, business ethics.

But unlike ethical dilemmas we've discussed in the past - when people are confronted with bizarre, freak circumstances they had never planned for, and then face agonizing choices regarding how to react - I'm now talking about cases where people willfully and proactively steer events in a certain direction.

Take the case of the owner of a $32 million business whose daring entry into entrepreneurship was recounted recently in a highly revealing lead article in Fortune Small Business.

Just over a decade ago, Kathy Taggares was itching to ditch her employer, frozen-food maker Chef Ready Foods, to start her own business. She decided to approach Marriott International about buying one of its salad dressing factories. Not that she was overly optimistic ("As a young single woman, I'd already had so many doors slammed in my face"), but what was there to lose?

But surprisingly, her overtures met with a particularly warm reception. Marriott even offered to help her finance the $5 million purchase over several years.

It seemed almost too good to be true. Actually, it was.

Slowly it dawned on Kathy that the Marriott people believed she was representing her employer, Chef Ready, as a solo entrepreneur. Had they realized that she was, in reality, representing herself, there was no way they would have taken her so seriously.

If she had owned up to the truth, the game would been up, for sure. Yet another door would have been slammed in her face. So what did Kathy do now? Simple.

"They never directly asked me," she confesses, "so I let them believe what they wanted to believe."

Sure, they found out at the end - and they weren't at all charmed by the deception - but by then, the deal had all but gone through. Twelve years and one more acquisition later, Kathy Taggeres' company, K.T's Kitchens, now employs 350 people.

Do we have to say something in order to lie?

Effective communication? Having painted herself into a rather tight corner, our would-be entrepreneur yet managed to come up trumps by simply NOT communicating, and doing it very effectively at that. It remains to answer our question: Was it straight?

Well, now, can we accuse Kathy Taggares of lying? No, it seems she didn't - at least, not with words. "I just left some of the blanks empty", as she expresses it. But do you have to SAY something in order to lie?

Personally, I don't think so. I'd go along with Robert Louis Stevenson's definition of honesty: "not just to state the true facts, but to convey a true impression." If so, no objective person can sincerely deny that Taggeres lied.

That being the case, we're forced to ask ourselves another pertinent question: Is it ever legitimate to lie in business?

Omitting cases of outright fraud where the law clearly says it's not, the author of the article I cited (Jeremy Useem: "Should You Lie?") writes that his magazine "put that question to dozens of entrepreneurs and ethicists. And while the answers that came back are neither black nor white, one thing is clear: Those who say that lying has no place in business aren't telling the truth."

Mark well what is being said here, and let it sink in. Sure, we weren't born yesterday. We know too much about the sharks that abound in the business world. Who is there amongst us who has not been bitten by them?

But that's not what our author is saying here. He's saying that, in the eyes of the great masses of business people out there -including some of the most respectable among them - lies and deception have a LEGITIMATE place in the world of business.

This does not necessarily mean that some respectable entrepreneurs condone cheating and deceiving as a general practice. (Hopefully, they don't, and probably, they wouldn't remain "respectable" too long if they did.) What it does mean it means many of them believe there's a time and place for everything. In other words, an occasional subtle deception,if not outright lie,is in order and appropriate when circumstances demand it.

And to prove the point, the essay in Fortune Small Business presents a whole host of real life examples. Business person after business person is depicted as bending the truth in the most ingenious ways - whether through speech, deeds, or untimely silence - to mislead potential or existing clients, suppliers or investors.

Why do they do it? Sometimes, they feel they have no choice.

One professor of business education says company founders often mislead people because they find themselves in an "expectations trap": No one will do business with them until they appear successful, yet they can't be successful until people do business with them.

One way to escape this "Catch 22" is to create the impression that they're bigger and more established than they are. Some might achieve this by playing office background noise in their home office or bringing in all their relatives to pose as staff members when a client comes to visit.

Others don't hesitate to puff up their capabilities (Sure, we've built an aircraft hangar before,") or to describe their vision of their company's future as if it were happening already.

Other academics point out that people tend to live with two independent sets of ethical standards - one for their personal lives (what you might call "religious ethics"), and one for their business or professional lives. In our culture, moreover, it might seem natural to model the latter set on the prevailing ethics of the world of sport, where shady practices are often seen as acceptable provided you don't break the Eleventh Commandment: "Thou Shalt Not Get Caught" (by the referee or umpire, that is).

For my part, I'm not impressed. Not at all.

Well, what do YOU say? Drop me a note and let me know.

Some Related Articles:

A Matter of Trust
Integrity and Long-term Success
Why Good People Do Bad Things in Business
Please Do Come In, But Better Watch Your Step!
Caught Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Time for Marketers to Clean Up Their Act

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