It's Friday morning and your boss stumbles in with a hangover.
“Tell clients I'm in an all-day meeting,” he says.
It's the end of the week and your department is supposed to submit a 12-page report – but your boss isn't finished writing his section.
“Tell them it's done but you had trouble with the printer,” he says.
If “yes sir” is your typical response to requests such as these, you're not the only one regularly fibbing for the boss.
A survey last month of 1,322 British employees found eight in 10 office workers lie for the boss on a daily basis. Most admitted to saying the boss was in a meeting when he was really just avoiding the call, while others said they have kept information under wraps on the boss's orders.
More than half of the respondents have taken flak for a boss's mistake, the survey found.
The results, according to Lisette Howlett, managing director of HireScores.com, the British recruitment tracker that commissioned the survey, suggest that lying has become a part of the corporate fabric. And with mounting fears over job security, many employees may be more ready to cover for the boss despite what their moral compass tells them. Their logic? Protecting their boss's job may, by default, safeguard theirs.
“We have this institutionalized dishonesty, which is very interesting considering how much energy we spend promoting honesty and openness and transparency in the office,” she said of the findings. “You also, at the same time, have people who think they are being dishonest but who think they have to be dishonest to keep their jobs.”
Of course, there's a big ethical difference between telling callers the boss will get back to them when he won't and, say, keeping mum about fudged numbers on a budget report. But the space between them can be a grey zone, experts say.
Even the small lies you brush off can snowball and damage your reputation, says Randy Cohen, who writes The Ethicist column in The New York Times Magazine.
“It's seldom you get an explicit deal from the devil – these things creep up,” he says. “I'm sure for the most part these lies are extremely minor and easy to justify, [but] once you kill the first guy, it's not so hard to kill the second.”
As the Martha Stewart and Enron scandals have taught us, support staff can also be held accountable if they help keep the boss's indiscretions on the down-low, says Nan DeMars, the Minneapolis-based author of You Want Me To Do What? When, Where and How to Draw the Line at Work.
Covering up for a boss by telling what she calls a “telephone white lie” won't likely blow up in your face, but tread carefully and know what to say to your boss if you would rather avoid the lies, Ms. DeMars says.
If your boss is asking you to fib or cover something up, repeat in more frank terms what he is really asking you to do, she recommends.
“You're telling them you know exactly what they're asking you to do, you're smart enough to figure that out,” she says. “I like to say there are many, many ways to say no, but there's only one reason to give and that's: ‘Because I may have to be held accountable.'.“ This year, Ms. DeMars conducted a similar survey of 1,200 U.S. employees and found that out of the 35 per cent of respondents who said they were asked to lie at work, less than half actually did it.
Judging from those results, Ms. DeMars believes employees are starting to realize that little white lies are easy enough to dodge by just telling the truth.
“I always say no one ever needs to lie nor should they lie in the business world. On the telephone, the greatest word is ‘unavailable.'.”
Set boundaries with the boss early on, making it clear that honesty is your policy, says Cornelius von Baeyer, a workplace ethics consultant based in Ottawa. But if you do try to draw a clear moral line, avoid fighting words and try not to come off as morally superior to your boss.
“What you must avoid at all costs is confrontation at this point. In the ethics business we're not asking people to commit a suicidal walk into your boss's office that will get you removed,” he says. “If your company is large enough they'll have an ethics counsellor or ethics officer you can also talk to.”
Ms. Howlett of HireScores.com remembers one of her first administrative assistants saying early on that she would not tell lies on her behalf. “I had said ‘I wouldn't imagine you would.' She replied, ‘I won't say you're in a meeting if you're not in a meeting.'.“ No one had ever raised the issue before, Ms. Howlett says. She was taken aback but also impressed that her new hire was upfront about her ethics.
Ms. DeMars says it's even okay to reveal the co-ordinates of your moral compass in the interview process.
“Say: ‘I want you to know I will never lie for you, but I will also never lie to you,” she says. “That's a very good thing. It translates into respect.”
But if you do decide to lie thinking it will impress the Big Cheese or gain her favour, don't forget the boss now knows you're willing to fudge the truth, Mr. Cohen says.
“When your boss asks you to do something dishonourable, even for the boss herself, she now knows you're someone who will lie.”
A past international president of IAAP, Nan DeMars CPS is an internationally recognized authority and seminar leader on office ethics. She is president of Executary Services in Minneapolis, MN, and author of You Want Me to do What? When, Where, and How to Draw the Line at Work (Simon & Schuster).
Contact Nan for more information about executary consulting services or seminars