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Corporate deception: where do we draw the line on lying at work?

A little white lie can’t hurt…right? Shutterstock/Syda Productions

Lying is part of everyday life and has been since humans first interacted. Consequently, deception has been a focus for ethical and philosophical debates for many centuries.

There have been those who have perceived all deliberate deception as ethically wrong, such as Immanuel Kant, while others have sought to recognise the subtleties and complexities of human interactions and the ways in which “good” might come from deception. For example, Thomas Aquinas thought all lies were wrong, but that there was a hierarchy whereby some lies were “helpful” and so were pardonable.

When it comes to business, the general expectation is that managers should and will tell the truth in their dealings with employees and customers, but these are murky waters. Business leaders may be “economical” with the truth to protect competitive advantage or to limit damage to their organisation.

Recently, research into corporate scandals – such as those enveloping Enron and Volkswagen – and individual acts of whistleblowing have shed greater light on the shadiness of the business world. Though always at risk of exposure, large-scale fibs happen.

White lies

But what of the relatively mundane and everyday deception that takes place in the business world? Despite the ubiquity of lies in day-to-day life, relatively little explicit attention has been paid to deception in studies of organisations. Perhaps because it is so commonplace, lying often passes without comment. Indeed, the original intention of our research had nothing to do with lying at work: deception was something that we discovered as part of an in-depth study of a call centre, where our initial objective was to better understand work experiences and the nature of employee engagement.

We had heard a presentation from the co-owner describing how happy and motivated the workforce was. This did not resonate with past evidence on the nature of work in most call centres and we wanted to examine this assertion for ourselves – but it turned out to be true. Furthermore, through in-depth interviews with a majority of the employees and managers working in the company, it became clear that the shared experience of deception that the workers actively and collectively engaged in on an ongoing basis was at the heart of their commitment and enjoyment.

The company in question is a virtual personal assistant and reception services provider and its strategy is founded on providing a high quality, discreet professional service for its customers. The organisation exemplifies what has been described as “strategic deception”: a central feature is that receptionists conceal that theirs is a sub-contracted operation.

Individual receptionists receive calls on behalf of multiple clients located throughout the country and working in any industry sector. Part of the skill of the receptionists is to flit between “emotional performances”: one minute they could be answering a call on behalf of an events firm and the next for an undertaker.

Technology instantly allows the receptionists to see on a screen who is calling and for whom as they pick up the call. The competitive advantage enjoyed by this market-leading firm relied on the personalities and skills of their employees in meeting client needs, while obscuring the truth that they are neither employed by, nor located in the office of, the company that has been called.

The receptionists developed multiple ways in which they would hide this deceit: pretending to hold conversations with people who were not there, suggesting that the person was in “the other office”, or claiming to be a new recruit who did not have detailed knowledge of the organisation. On one occasion that passed into the company’s folklore, a receptionist pretended to be blind so as not to have to give directions to a work location that they had never been to but were assumed to be situated in.

The autonomy and collective sharing of ideas on how to lie successfully –- and in doing so maintain a discreet, high-quality service –- was reported by the receptionists as both empowering and enjoyable. Many reported that they had grown in self-confidence as a result of their work and laughed as they recounted to us how they “lied for a living”.

The organisation is doing nothing illegal by lying. In fact, one might conclude that these acts of deception are no more than white lies, or fall under Thomas Aquinas’ “helpful lies” category. Perhaps one might consider this everyday behaviour as little different to doctors lying to protect patients, or flight attendants lying to calm passengers. But there are at least two important differences here from those examples: the organisation had deception as a strategic aspect of their business plan, and the deception was intrinsic to the ongoing role of each employee.

Help or hindrance?

Here lies a bigger question: what about circumstances when such organisationally promoted and legitimated deception is not as minor and may result in significant harm to others? Our research shows how the normalisation of lying takes place and, through this process, how strategic deception at the organisational level becomes accepted and endorsed by employees. But at what stage should this lying be halted?

Though there certainly may be benefits for employees lying in the workplace, our study raises deeper questions about the ethical implications of organisations that require their employees to deceive. At the outsourced reception company, managers invoked the “positive virtues” of professionalism and customer care to legitimate lying to callers.

So what, if any, are the limits to such invocations? The ubiquity and strength of customer service and market discourses in our increasingly consumerist societies makes us wonder just how far employees might go in their acts of strategic deception.

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