While working with a group of high school students, I asked them if lying was acceptable. Without exception, they all said no – lying is wrong. Most of you probably agree and judging by their websites, all businesses agree that lying is not an ethical thing to do. On a recent survey of business websites, including those of Fortune 500 companies, I commonly found core values like honesty and integrity. Not a single website suggested that the company told the truth only part of the time.
Let’s digress for a moment and take a journey back in time to Germany in 1941. World War II is in full swing and Hitler is exterminating the Jews. For many years you lived next door to a Jewish family and it was becoming apparent that they were going to be picked up and sent to a concentration camp. Not being able to bear the thought of their execution, you decide to hide them in your house. One night, the Gestapo pound on your door and ask the whereabouts of the family. What would you do? Is lying appropriate in this case?
Philosophically speaking, there are different ways of looking at lying. The three main viewpoints are:
- Lying is never right
- Lying is sometimes wrong
- Lying is neither right nor wrong
In business, we naively approach lying from the perspective of lying is never right, yet in reality we casually make white-lies all the time. We make excuses for co-workers or bosses who don’t want to pick up the phone. We exaggerate claims in our marketing material and during our sales pitches. We try to “bluff” our way through the gatekeepers to talk with the decision makers. These are considered acceptable behaviors by many people, or at least expected in the world of business.
There are other times when some of us intentionally lie on a grander scale and consider it appropriate. Let’s suppose that you are working for a company or a department that is on its last legs financially. You need new business to stay afloat and have one last chance in a project that is offered to your company. The qualifications put out by the customer require you to have 8 years of experience in a certain area. Your company or division only has 7. What would you do?
Would you apply anyway by stretching the truth, or would you not apply and fold your company, letting all your employees go in the process. If you discuss this among your peers, some (but not all!) would say that lying is probably justified in this case. You stay in business, provide a service to your customer and life goes on. Yet, high school students, most of you, and all businesses proclaim that lying is never right! If we take our actions, instead of our beliefs as a starting point to discuss ethics, we should be laying down guidelines that tell us when lying is wrong, instead of blindly assuming that lying is never right!
This poses a significant problem for all of us. If we cannot define a clear cut rule around something as simple as lying, how do you know that what you are doing is a minor indiscretion as compared to a major breech of integrity? What is the right thing to do?
As a leader, it is imperative that you mentor the people around you in determining the right thing to do. However before you can teach them, you must know what your beliefs are when it comes to doing the right thing. How do you determine appropriate behavior? What is your yardstick to measure your actions against?
A method that has been taught and advocated in many courses on ethics recommends that you ask yourself three questions when faced with decisions that may have ethical implications:
- Is it legal?
- What would I do if it made the news?
- How would I feel if my family found out about it?
While these are helpful, they are too generic and still leave a lot of ambiguity when it comes to doing the right thing. For example, just because something is legal does not necessarily mean it is the ethical thing to do.
The Three Laws
I recently saw the movie I Robot, based on Isaac Asimov’s classic work of science fiction dealing with robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI). A major theme of the story revolves around the Three Laws of AI.
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm
- A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or the Second Law
While these laws pertain to Asimov’s world, we can borrow from the Three Laws and create a similar hierarchy of rules for practical use in business today. While not foolproof, these rules can serve as our guideline in distinguishing between good and bad behavior.
Three Laws Refined
- A leader should avoid causing direct or indirect harm to others
- A leader should meet the needs of stakeholders most critical to the organization, unless it conflicts with the first law
- A leader should strive to achieve personal success, unless it conflicts with the first or second law
While general in nature, the Three Laws are a starting point for organizations to have a discussion on what is appropriate behavior. By having these discussions, a leader will have more opportunities to determine what the true values of the organization are, and then develop more detailed guidelines that will help the staff to do the right thing.
The Three Laws focus on outcomes and leave specific behaviors to be regulated by laws and the norms of society. The intent of these laws is to guide a leader who is faced with an ethical dilemma. When trying to decide a course of action, the Three Laws offer more guidance than a simple statement such as lying is never right.
In the case of business, we can use this as a yardstick that will help executives look out for the welfare of others and decrease the occurrence of irresponsible actions that pose a danger to both individuals and the environment.
All the best!
All the time!