Commentary: A Lying Shame

Most of us are mostly honest most of the time. But is that good enough?

It’s always amazing to me how much you can learn from cartoons and kids’ shows. A while back, I sat down to watch an episode of Barney & Friends with my now 3-year-old daughter. If you don’t have young children or grandchildren, Barney is the purple dinosaur with the creepy smile. But the show is pretty entertaining, and Barney seems friendly enough after you get used to him.

Anyway, this particular episode told the story of a wise old emperor who was looking for someone to rule his kingdom. He gave each of three possible successors a seed and asked them to plant the seeds and take care of them for one full year – then bring them back. The trio excitedly all went their separate ways.

One of the three people, a little boy named Ling, was very good at growing plants. For some reason, though, he couldn’t get his seed to sprout no matter what he did. Months went by and Ling was worried to go back before the emperor without a plant. A friend tried to get Ling to ditch his lifeless seed and swap it out for a fully-grown plant instead. But Ling didn’t think that was a good idea, even if his failure meant he’d be embarrassed in front of the emperor’s court.

When the time came for all three candidates to return to the emperor’s palace, Ling was the only one who brought an empty pot. The other two people had beautiful flowering plants with them. Then it happened. To everyone’s surprise, the emperor suddenly announced that Ling would be the new ruler of the kingdom. The emperor then explained that he gave all three people a rotten seed that could never grow. His test was simply to see who would be honest.

My daughter, mesmerized by the costumes and catchy songs, didn’t quite get the lesson then – but I did. Being honest is the right thing to do.

We all know this. It sure sounds good. And yet, let’s be truthful here – honesty isn’t exactly one of the hallmarks of our society.

In fact, a University of Massachusetts study found that 60% of adults can’t have a 10-minute conversation without telling a lie. Other studies show people lie all the time on resumes and on social profiles. People lie on dates, at the office and at the dinner table. Who hasn’t lied about accomplishments, money or their weight? Some lies, of course, are worse than others. We lie to our kids about the Tooth Fairy. That doesn’t seem so bad compared to the lies of Bernie Madoff or Lance Armstrong.

Many of us, though, fall somewhere in between those two extremes. We won’t admit we took office suppliers – after all, it was just a few envelopes and pens. We tell a client we’re running late because traffic is bad, when the road is actually clear. Or, we stretch the truth a little in our advertising. Maybe, for example, we say a promotional product is made in the USA, when just part of it is made here. Who’s going to notice anyway?

For next month's issue of Advantages, Senior Writer Chris Ruvo talked to a distributor who did notice. Or more correctly, her customer noticed. We agreed not to use her real name, so let’s call the distributor “Jen.” Needing some U.S.-made rally towels for a labor union client, Jen got to work. She found towels marketed by a supplier as “Made in the USA,” but she wanted to make certain they were domestically manufactured. She called the supplier and was assured the towels were made in the U.S. She placed the order thinking she had pulled it off – she found the right product that could be delivered in just the nick of time.

But as Chris writes next, “business disaster” was about to strike. When the towels got to the customer, they had tags that read: Made in China. Needless to say, Jen’s customer wasn’t very happy. Jen lost the order and, despite her best efforts to make things right, the customer, too. Now you might think this was just a mix up, an unfortunate, unintended mistake. But it wasn’t. As you’ll read in the September article, called “Red, White & Duped,” the supplier’s Made-in-the-USA claim was totally deceptive. Worse yet, Jen’s story isn’t a one-off.

I’ve heard it explained this way: Telling lies can be like tying a knot. Every time you lie, the knot gets bigger and harder to undo. One lie covers another lie. Before long, it becomes easier to justify dishonesty. Our moral compass simply stops working – either that or we ignore what it’s telling us.

All this said, I believe most of us are mostly honest most of the time. But is that good enough? Don’t the people who trust us – loved ones, friends, colleagues, business partners – deserve better? Call me crazy. Idealistic. Naïve. Maybe I am. Maybe you should be, too.

The religious leader James E. Faust once said: “Honesty is more than not lying. It is truth telling, truth speaking, truth living and truth loving.” No doubt this is a high standard. We may never fully attain it. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. It’s a lot harder to show up with the empty pot when everyone else has beautiful plants. But, in the end, doing the right thing will yield the greatest rewards – in business and in life.