Honesty in Conduct

Honesty is the bedrock of trust and trustworthiness. The moral command to be honest requires us to speak and act only in ways that engender and justify trust. That seems simple enough. But honesty is a broader concept than some realize. An honest person tells the truth, is sincere, doesn’t deceive, mislead, act devious or tricky, doesn’t betray a trust, doesn’t withhold important information in relationships of trust, doesn’t steal, and doesn’t cheat. There are two dimensions of honesty: honesty in communications and honesty in conduct.


An honest person is a trusted neighbor and citizen. He or she does not steal, cheat, or use fraud, subterfuge or any other form of trickery to acquire anything of value (money, job approval).

Cheating. Cheating is particularly despicable form of dishonesty because it is a way of gaining an advantage over those who don’t cheat. Thus, it is not only a violation of the moral obligation to be worthy of trust but also, a violation of the duty to be fair.

We usually think of cheating as something kids do in school. But cheating occurs in all walks of adult life. Some forms are petty, others more serious. The person with a basket full of groceries who is in a hurry, for example, cheats when he gets in the “10 items or less” line. The man who boards a plane before his row number is called is a cheater. The woman who pushes in front of you to take the cab you hailed is a cheater. The coach who wants to win so badly he plays a kid who is not eligible is a cheater and so is the person who returns a garment to a store after wearing it.

These forms of cheating are corrosive to society because they undermine the willingness of the general population to play by sensible rules that make our lives easier and more orderly. Cheating not only mocks honesty, it is also disrespectful. When cheaters prosper, the honest people lose. They may grin and bear it with noble serenity or become cynical and bitter. Either way, we diminish our capacity to humanize and civilize our competitive instincts when we can’t count on people to do their share.

But how do we stop cheating? Once again, it comes down to personal accountability. Each of us is accountable to not only do our share and play by the rules but sometimes to insist that others do so as well. If the checkers at the “10 items or less” checkout lines and the gate attendants did their jobs properly there would be no cheating. They could just tell the interloper to go to another register or wait his or her turn. So why don’t they? Sometimes they are unwilling to provoke what could be a confrontation (after all, lots of cheaters are jerks), sometimes they are lazy, and sometimes they just don’t think it is important. Here’s a suggestion: If after you tell them that they should enforce their own rules and they still do not do so, ask for a manager or write a letter to management. It’s a hassle and it’s uncomfortable, but, so is being taken advantage of. In some cases, it is appropriate and courteous to politely call the potential cheaters’ attention to the rules; maybe they made an honest mistake. (Just make sure they aren’t armed.) In any event, you might be surprised at how few people have to stand up for what is right to change the culture. Why is it your responsibility to see that the rules are followed? Because no one else is doing it.

Cheating in the Workplace. A far more pervasive and sometimes subtle form of cheating occurs in the workplace on résumés, time sheets, expense claims, safety reports, and all manner of internal measurements. The problem of workplace cheating has worsened considerably in recent years as more organizations have entered the computer world, where measurement mania prevails. Virtually everything that can be counted is counted rapidly and reported regularly. The movement toward measurement and evaluation is, by itself, a positive development allowing organizations to replace subjective impressions with solid evidence of performance and impact. Assuming one is measuring the right thing and measuring it accurately, holding managers and other employees accountable is an act of responsible stewardship.

Workplace cheating takes two major forms. First is old-fashioned lying and deception. Numbers can be altered to produce desired results. This is sometimes referred to as “cooking the books.” Done on a large scale on important documents, this constitutes criminal fraud. Done daily on internal reports it is merely “telling the boss what he wants to hear” or “getting by” or “the system.”

A second way of cheating is subtle. It involves “beating the system” by manipulating what is counted in a way that produces the illusion of success but actually masks more relevant measures of performance. Let me give you some examples.

An interesting beat-the-system scheme occurred in a major power company in the Northeast. During storm-caused power outages customers were unable to reach company service personnel because the phone lines were overloaded. Customers who got endless busy signals were furious. Top management ordered the service manager to fix the problem of busy signals. As is often the case, the manager was not given more resources, simply more responsibility. His solution was to put in ten more phone lines. Since, however, no new operators were added, the callers were simply put on perpetual hold. Many got tired of waiting, hung up, and called back later. Two interesting things happened. The service manager was able to report his great success at solving the busy signal problem and his monthly reports looked good. Second, because so many customers called repeatedly he was able to report that the amount of customer activity had gone up sharply and, on this basis, he was able to get a budget allocation for more operators. And it seems, on the surface at least, that everyone lived happily ever after.

It is peculiar success stories like these, however, that mask the organizational corruption that occurs when cleverness is elevated over substance. First of all, management mischaracter-ized the problem. It wasn’t too many busy signals at issue but real customer service and satisfaction. Customers wanted to talk to someone and get their problem fixed. Putting them on hold made things worse. The customer service manager knew he wasn’t addressing the problem, but he gave his bosses what they asked for and by the organization’s internal standards, he was a success. If he could not solve the real problem without more resources, and ingenuity can go only so far, he should have had the integrity to say so and present the honest options to his superiors. On the other hand, how honest or fair were his superiors being in expecting him to solve the problem without resources? What does it say about the integrity and judgment of management if it has to be tricked into doing the right thing?

In working with a very large government agency to develop a comprehensive ethics program, the Josephson Institute discovered that ingenuity was a highly prized characteristic. Unfortunately, no distinction was made between the ingenuity of really getting a job done and the ingenuity of appearing to get the job done. For example, the top management of the agency was very much “into” customer service and “total quality management.” Every division and sub department was required to develop detailed business plans, that established measurable goals in specified customer service areas. One of these was to shorten the average time the agency was taking to deal with citizen challenges of agency decisions. The Institute discovered a common way to meet these performance goals was to manipulate the system in several ways. At first, employees, with the knowledge and encouragement of their superiors, selectively chose the easiest cases, the ones that could be resolved quickly. This worked for only a short time because the more complex cases were being put off and soon the proportion of hard cases to easy cases made it far more difficult to reach even the old numbers. Eventually, the settlement strategies changed and the agency became far more willing to concede a citizen’s point, not because it thought the citizen was right, but because it had to close out its cases.

Lying, misleading, and distorting are all acts of dishonesty, which cannot be justified by claims that “it’s the system” or “management expects me to.” When personal integrity and accountability do not prevail, endlessly escalating forms of dishonesty take over. Accountability is not like a hot potato, handled by one person at a time. Everyone involved with a given enterprise has accountability simultaneously. No one is off the hook. The very top management of an organization is accountable for the culture in which ordinary people with ordinary moral weaknesses make their decisions. And top management is not accountable only as a group. Each and every manager is personally accountable for what he or she does or doesn’t do to guarantee that all organizational activities are carried out with integrity. Managers are accountable to know what really goes on.

Establishing an ethos that permits, let alone encourages honesty is not easy. Through reward and promotion systems, through narrow focus on the bottom line, many senior executives promote the kind of coping strategies that corrupt the integrity of internal communications. Under such circumstances, intelligent, long-term decision makingbecomes practically impossible because most rewards focus on short-term results and because the information on which the decision is based is almost certainly inaccurate. This information becomes increasingly inaccurate as distortion builds upon distortion. And managers in government and industry have no real idea what “real” numbers would look like even if they got them.