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Making Lies Work for You at the Office

A new book argues that honesty may not be the best policy in the workplace. From Hire to Liar: The Role of Deception in the Workplace says lies and misinformation may not be so bad — they're an essential part of how business gets done. Steve Inskeep talked with the author, David Shulman.

The author's note here says that you teach anthropology and sociology at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Is that a lie?

No, that's the actual truth.

What's so good about lying?

One of the things that lying does is, it may not have a lot ethical virtues but it has a lot of functional virtues. Sometimes, one of the virtues of lying is to be able to bypass certain rules [that] people would think are unfair or oppressive to customers or clients.

Like the regulation that causes you to deny a refund to a customer? The customer doesn't have the receipt, but you know the guy bought it, so you give him the refund.

Examples like that. I've found some of the more serious deceptions in nonprofits — things like pro-environmental organizations. People may say the money is going to one kind of cause, [but] take a little more of it for another cause because they felt what they're doing is for the greater good. They're very, very morally committed to what it is that they're doing.

Another context in business [is] if somebody is bringing money in, people don't always like to ask a lot of questions about how that's happening.

I knew someone who had a job selling a product that the company had not perfected yet. He faced this constant ethical dilemma about what claims to make for the product, because he had a strong suspicion that they weren't going to be able to deliver anything.

It's a very great example, because the first lie that would happen is the lie that somebody might tell to themselves. In this case, it's not their fault that they may be misleading the person. The responsibility for a decision like that doesn't lie with them. They're kind of a neutral tool of management, and they don't bear the responsibility for carrying out the false claims.

Can you give an example of somebody who has lied to themselves about the lie they were telling?

Classic example would be, I'm walking down the hall with somebody, they see a coworker, they're like, "Hey, it's wonderful to see you, how are the kids?"

We walk a few more feet, and then the person says, "I hate that such and such."

And if I ask people if that's deceptive, they say, "No, that's etiquette."

And another example: I talked to somebody about their resume, and they explained to me that they had barely any experience at all doing a particular kind of software programming, but they implied on their resume that they did have experience. And I asked if that was deceptive, and the guy said, "No, it's just telling the most optimistic version of the truth."

Are there situations where you almost expect to be lied to? You expect the car salesman to tell you the good things about the car, and you know he might not be telling you everything, but it's what you expect.

Obviously private detectives. I'm thinking of the private detective who told me, "If BS were music, I'd be the philharmonic."

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