It is in your business’s financial interests to hire only honest people. Here’s why honesty is a crucial quality of every member of your team and how to avoid hiring liars.
What is honesty?
Above all, honesty is a feeling, a disposition and an orientation toward the truth. Honest employees cannot tolerate lying, fudging data, misrepresenting themselves or their companies, or other acts that display contempt for the truth. Falsehood in all its forms is poison to an honest person.
Watch the opening scene from Patton, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and written by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North. Pay particular attention to how General George S. Patton regards winners and losers.
Note how George C. Scott, who won an Academy Award for Best Actor, interprets the line, “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser” (at the one-minute, 46-seconds mark). The passion in that performance is how honest people feel about the truth. Honesty people love the truth and will not tolerate a liar.
At least, that’s what we aspire to. And it’s a good thing too, as we’ll see in this story about an honest employee named Brenda Harry.
Honest people are a boon to business
After the closure of the furniture factory where she had been working for twenty years , Brenda Harry found a minimum-wage job at the Goodwill Store and Donation Center in Pearisburg, Virginia (population 2,786). Her job was to process clothes and other items that people deposited in collection boxes around town. She ensured they were in good condition and that the donors hadn’t left anything in the clothing.
Most of the time, the pockets were empty, but one day in January 2014, she discovered four envelopes inside a suit jacket. Those envelopes contained $3,100 in cash. This was more than she made in two months of full-time work at Goodwill. If she had pocketed it, no one would have known. But Brenda Harry immediately turned the money over to her supervisor.
When Deb Saunders, chief compliance officer for Goodwill of the Valleys, told me this story in a Zoom call, I wanted to know why Brenda didn’t keep the money for herself. So I called Brenda and asked her.
“I was raised to be honest,” she told me. It was that simple. “It doesn’t matter if you need the money. It’s not yours. So you turn it in. My parents told me that if you’re honest, you will get your reward at the end of time. If you’re not honest, you will pay for it on Judgment Day.”
Smart employers hire people like Brenda Harry because they can trust her. No matter how knowledgeable or skilled a person may be, if he or she is fundamentally dishonest or doesn’t value honesty, that person is detrimental and possibly even dangerous.
In some cases, a business can quantify the benefits of honest employees. The Goodwill store in Pearisburg had $3,100 added to its monthly revenue when no one claimed the money that Brenda had turned in. But there are other ways that honest employees play a crucial role in an organization.
The engineer who refused to fudge data
Before becoming senior vice president for strategy and business development at Xerox, Cari Dorman worked as an electrical engineer for a company that had been awarded a contract with the U.S. Navy. Her role was to develop a software program to measure the likelihood that a transmitted electronic message reached its intended target.
Cari’s boss — I’ll call him Saul — asked her to change some data in her research because the results were not what Saul wanted or hoped they would be. Because of the potential implications, Cari did not want to make the changes. “I knew that standing up to Saul might get me fired,” Cari told me via Zoom. “But I asked myself, ‘What if my son were in the navy during a war, and he was relying on my software program for knowing whether a message he sent got through or not?’” Cari refused to do what her boss asked.
With lives on the line, Cari was willing to risk her job for the sake of doing honest research. Her passion for honesty makes her the kind of employee you too would do well to hire.
The consequences of dishonesty: one strike and you’re out
Many years ago, I had the privilege of taking a weeklong seminar in leadership at the Gallup in Lincoln, Nebraska. The late Donald O. Clifton, who was Gallup’s president, told the group how the organization deals with employees who have done something dishonest, like fudging data in a poll. “They’re fired,” he said. “Immediately.”
“Even if it’s just a single offense?” I asked him.
“That’s right. Because people have to trust that our surveys and polls are conducted with integrity. Otherwise our product is meaningless.”
I asked Alan Murray, former president of the Pew Research Center, if he thought Clifton’s policy was too harsh. He didn’t think so. “The Pew Center sees its greatest asset as the trust that people have in the information the center provide,” Murray told me via Zoom. “So anything that has the potential to damage that public trust is an existential threat to the center’s work. Trustworthiness is the core of the Pew brand.”
Honesty and your brand
The advertising legend Walter Landor once said that “a brand is a promise.” The logo of one of your favorite companies is more than just a cool graphic. The company is essentially saying to you, “You can continue to buy this service or product with confidence that we stand behind what we sell. And if we fail you somehow, we’ll make it right.”
Dishonesty at any level of the company threatens that implied promise. “I’m privileged to have worked for several great brands, and when you think about what makes brands powerful, it’s all about trust,” Alan Murray added. “The public has a certain understanding that what they’re getting when they see that brand is something they can count on and rely on to a higher degree than what they might find elsewhere. I see maintaining the public’s trust as my highest purpose.”
A company’s power, influence, and integrity are a direct function of the honesty of its employees.
Honesty is a feeling, not merely a series of actions.
Honesty people are a boon to your business.
It can make sense to fire someone for a single dishonest act.
Your brand's reputation rests on the honesty of your team members—and you.
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Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.
The Ethics Guy®
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