My Two Cents: Living With Corporate Falsehood

By Dom Serafini

Can TV executives admit mistakes? I mean, can someone an-nounce to the world that a particular decision was an unfortu-nate one and still have a job? The answer is a definite no, since our business, like many others, rewards falsehoods, not sincer-ity. According to Brad Blanton, psychotherapist and author of “Radical Honesty: How to Transform your Life by Telling the Truth” (Dell, 1996), “Most people don’t speak the truth for fear of the consequences.” Plus, the business environment encourages insincerity. Indeed, when an executive lies nowadays, it’s called “strategy.”

We too, in the press, are often accused of insincerity. As the expression goes, “news is not the truth and the truth is not news.” But, in my view, the advertising sector is, in general, more prone to deceit than the press, thus mitigating our degree of insincerity — since, at this point, we can only talk about degrees.

In a recent interview promoting his new movie Pinocchio, Oscar winner Roberto Benigni stated that “only children and fools tell the truth,” which brings us to the realization that lies in the business world are as old as the “Emperor’s New Clothes” fable.

But that’s not all. Nobel Prize co-winner for Economics, Daniel Kahneman, observed that it is better to criticize than to compliment an achievement, since a compliment could result in a diminished performance. This creates a perpetual impetus for the executive to lie to subordinates. According to Prof. Stephen Leeder, Dean of the School of Medicine, University of Sydney, “Lying diminishes the autonomy of the other.”

To Paul LaFontaine, a former Bertelsmann Music Group project manager, “There are as many lies in business as there are people in business.” Indeed, in a survey of 40,000 Americans, 93 percent admitted to lying “regularly and habitually in the workplace.”

In effect, sincerity in business is a paradox because business is an activity regulated by a “Catch-22” law: If one claims to be honest, he has to cleanse his past by demonstrating that he was dishonest. But, in doing so, he proves that he’s basically dishonest. And, as in Joseph Heller’s novel, when a business nears the “numbers,” these stakes are raised.

The 17th century philosopher John Locke argued that the laws of nature mandate that we should not harm anyone’s life, health, liberty or possessions. But, if we were to practice this, most health care, oil and transportation companies would not be in business. Plus, the idea of individual liberty and possession goes against the founding principle of every large conglomerate: achieving financial success.

The whole structure of a typical multinational is built on layers designed for creating lies: accounting to mask financial improprieties, insurance to protect against harm done, research studies and consultants to protect against bad decisions, lobbies to assure higher costs or build traps, corporate-shared responsibilities to dilute accountability, and lawyers to defend mistakes. The clear impression exists that there is nothing that the legal department can’t fix, by first negating, later explaining and, finally, justifying.

Now the U.S. Congress is even calling for the repeal of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act (PSLRA), aka the “give corporations a license to lie” act passed in 1995 (which made it harder to sue companies for stock fraud). And MPAA president Jack Valenti has been quoted as saying that “we need to put in speed bumps to keep people honest”— if only it was related to the rampant piracy of movies and TV.

Finally, the fine line between truth and the unethical helps make lying easier. As explained by President George W. Bush, the line between corrupt and legal isn’t always “black and white.”

Dom Serafini