Work

My boss told me to lie. Now what?

Quek Tze-Ming // July 5, 2018, 10:51 pm

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Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash.

Everyone knows that Christians are supposed to tell the truth. Even non-Christians know this. Furthermore, honesty and integrity are valued by most in the workplace – at least as an ideal. 

For Christians, honesty is a virtue because it is grounded in God’s character.  We are meant to be in close relationship with this God who never lies (Titus 1:2), and is Himself truth (John 14:6, 16:13; 1 John 5:6; Psalms 119:142), we are called to be a truthful people (John 17:17), emulating His character.

Honesty is a virtue because it is grounded in God’s character.

And so, God’s people are commanded not to lie to, deceive, or perjure each other (Leviticus 19:11; Exodus 20:16). Truthfulness generally leads to the best and lasting outcomes (Proverbs 12:19). In the New Testament, truth-telling is an expression of our new life in Christ (Colossians 3:9), and our new status as members of one body of Christ (Ephesians 4:24-25). We are enjoined to speak “the truth in love” as we grow up in every way into Christ (Ephesians 4.10).

Truth be told

Truthfulness is not just one bullet-point in a list of moralistic dos and don’ts, but is connected to the character of God, our relationship with Him, and with each other. With this perspective, we can see how deception effaces our God-given and God-relating humanity, making us less than who God created us to be, damaging ourselves and others. And so, the biblical expectation – is to tell the truth.

Deception effaces our God-given and God-relating humanity, making us less than who God created us to be.

But, our commitment to truth is often challenged in the workplace. Sometimes it looks like – as some bosses and colleagues imply – it is impossible to succeed at work by telling only the truth. Some categories in the workplace which present challenges to and opportunities for a Christian’s commitment to truthfulness: competing moral values, puffery or exaggeration, white lies, and bluffing in negotiation.

Competing moral values

Even in Scripture we find situations where deception is condoned or perhaps even praised – Hebrew midwives dissembling their responses to Pharaoh and saving Hebrew male children (Exodus 1:19), the elaborate scheme hiding Moses’ Hebrew origins to preserve his life (Exodus 2:1-10), Rahab deceiving the soldiers of Jericho to protect the spies (Joshua 2:1-24).

Today, we can think of the policeman who goes undercover to deceive, infiltrate, and disrupt a criminal drug syndicate. All these are situations where two or more moral values come into conflict. The bible heroes and the undercover policeman, were faced with the difficult situation of weighing conflicting values. They decided correctly that the obligation to protect lives outweighed that of truth-telling in their particular circumstance. These situations do not mean that something is wrong with God, or that God contradicts himself in his commandments. Instead, they show the fallen nature of our world, which occasionally throws up situations for which truth and love are sundered and compete with each other. 

Puffery and exaggeration

Most people consider “puffery” – relatively harmless. For example, a contractor may claim to be “Best in Singapore, JB, and some say Batam”. Many would probably dispute that claim. The one making the claim would likely not have demonstrable evidence to substantiate what is basically an opinion. Yet no reasonable person would regard it as a lie. This is puffery, an exaggeration that attracts attention. Sometimes they become advertising slogans.

In real life, we can usually intuit when someone is expressing an unverifiable opinion rather than a claim of objective truth. Opinions and slogans have value to society, to a market economy, even when they are biased opinions, even if they turn out to be wrong or less than absolutely accurate. It would be a less poetic and less colourful world if Debeers were only allowed to say, “A Diamond is … around for millions of years, or shorter if subjected to high temperatures or ion bombardment.” 

But this does not mean that truth has no place in advertising. When a company makes measurable claims, holding them out as statements of fact, then the standards of truth-telling and the law of misrepresentation apply. If one says an electronic product runs 37% faster than its predecessor, then there must be benchmarks backing that up. The difference between this and the slogans is that here we have claims of fact, not mere opinion or puffs.

Stick to the facts

This difference between puffery and verifiable claims of fact can also be found in more personal communication, such as between you and the client. So, if your boss tells you to say, “Our company is the best for this job,” that’s fine in most circumstances because nobody expects that statement to be backed by an objective ranking by an independent body. But if he tells you to say, “Our company is ISO-certified,” when in fact it is not, then that is a violation of truthfulness.

The world occasionally throws up situations for which truth and love are sundered and compete with each other.

In personal communication with your client, even when giving unverifiable opinions, you should still guard against exaggerating. This is because the client may be relying on your opinions to make an informed decision. Suppose your boss wants you to say, “Our company has done this many times, we know the best way to solve your problem, we can handle it,” when in fact your company has only done faced this sort of situation once or twice.

Now, it may well be that your boss does actually have great confidence that the company can help this client. And maybe you do too. Here, what you want to do is to acknowledge to your boss that you join in his intention to portray the company’s confidence and competence; and then to actually do so to the client without the exaggeration or lie. Perhaps, instead of exaggerating how many times your company has “done this,” you can describe how your company has handled one specific previous situation competently, and detail how you would now deal with his problem.

White lies

“White lies” are usually understood to be those told avoid minor conflict or hurting feelings, and are supposedly harmless.

A common scenario in the workplace is when your boss tells you to say that he or she is out of the office or in a meeting, so as to avoid having to talk to someone. It is tempting to treat “white lies” differently from “real” lies, since they appear so trivial.

There are usually ways to handle these potentially awkward situations without deceit. For example, I’d say of my boss or colleague, “I’m sorry, he’s not available at the moment. How may I help you?” instead, or “But I’ll let him know you called, so that he can get back to you later.” Generally, the person with whom you’re talking doesn’t need to know precisely why your boss is unavailable, and there is no obligation for you to say everything.

Bluffing in negotiation

One tricky situation which may present a challenge to truthtelling in the workplace is bluffing, which often takes place in the context of negotiations.

Albert Carr, in his famous exploration “Is Business Bluffing Ethical?”, argued that business is like poker: everyone knows the rules, bluffing is not deception but part of the game, therefore it’s acceptable practice. This view is sometimes linked to the legal principle caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”).

But, as others have pointed out, the problem with the poker analogy is that business is not a game. Not all the participants are “at the table” by choice and not all are free to leave at their choice. Not everyone knows all the rules of the “game”. Sometimes, what we have is power or knowledge differential that could result in one party unconscionably taking advantage of the other’s weakness.

Negotiations do not have have to involve lying, even if you don’t reveal everything at the start.

The goal of negotiation is an agreement on a fair price and terms, for mutual benefit. There are indeed some scenarios where the parties know and accept the rules, expecting that the process will involve give and take, change from starting (stated) positions to move gradually towards final agreement. 

But negotiations should not involve out-and-out lying to the other party. Rather, it may mean not revealing your cards at the start. In many industries, you are not lying if you make that opening offer. Of course, it gets dicey if the other side asks whether that is the lowest you can go. Instead of lying, a good answer may be something like, “this is what is being offered now.” The point is that negotiations do not have have to involve lying, even if you don’t reveal everything at the start.

Above deceit

That said, there is a category of information that you do have to reveal at the start – factual information required to understand the nature of the product or service or transaction. Perhaps we can understand bluffing as similar to puffery in advertising. Bluffing is exaggerating your attitudes about the price or terms as a negotiating tactic. Parties do not consider it deceitful. But making false statements of fact is deceitful.  

One way to avoid making false statements of fact during negotiations is to instead speak truthfully. Suppose your boss tells you to make a false statement of fact to the client: “Buy now, because next week we are raising prices.” You can get the same effect if you say instead: “You know how the market moves. If you walk away now, are you sure you can get a better deal elsewhere or later?” 

We are made in the image of the One who is Truth, and relates to us in truth.

Christians often find ourselves in difficult situations, as a people committed to truth and honesty, they are also opportunities for you to exercise courage, wisdom, and creativity. Throughout, you will be asking, “Does what I’m doing in this particular situation honour God, and respect my boss, and the client?”

If indeed you find that what your boss has instructed you to do is deceptive, then you will have to stand firm. Deception mars essential humanity, damaging ourselves and others, for we are made in the image of the One who is Truth, and relates to us in truth.

Laying ground rules

Without necessarily calling out your boss directly for being a liar who promotes unethical business practices, let him know how you prefer to deal with the clients. In other words, don’t just tell your boss you won’t lie and leave it at that. Try to show that you understand the result he is looking for – whether it’s to close the deal or renegotiate terms – and in that way give assurance that you too are working towards the same goal.

Plan out and describe to your boss the alternative course of action which you think should lead to the same, or even better outcome, for the company. Be as detailed as you can and then go through with it. This is where your integrity, creativity, and persistence come together. Most people do appreciate integrity and honesty, at least as an ideal. Take the chance, time and effort to demonstrate that it’s the best policy in practice too, and win your boss over. 

 
About the author

Quek Tze-Ming

Quek Tze-Ming is the director in Academic Planning at the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST), where he is also a lecturer in New Testament and New Testament Greek & Hermeneutics. Quek is a PhD candidate in New Testament Studies at the University of Cambridge. After leaving legal practice, he served in the Fellowship of Evangelical Students (Singapore)'s student ministry.