Lie Or Street

I was once asked to lie to a customer about the inner workings of a product by both the owner and my immediate manager. It was not outright stated, but it was implied that I was risking being fired by not complying. It was during the dot-com-bust "tech recession" such that finding a new employer was not necessarily a sure thing. I had bills to pay and young kids to raise, and thus was put into a very difficult situation. If I were single I'd just leave and become a wondering contractor or hobo or both. But my decision would impact others. My wife leaned toward doing what the managers said, implying "you have to play the game to get the loot." (She faced hard times as a child.) What would you do? Fortunately, the company bellied-up before the issue came to full bore. I grew more left-leaning after that episode. Capitalism has some ugly sharp edges. --top
While I'm not an AynRand thumper, I can't help but note that a little dose of objectivism (note, lowercase-O) can provide some guidance in these kinds of circumstances. I would have perpetuated the lie, but with the full knowledge and confidence of immediately looking for another job, and if that option wasn't available, creating your own. If you lie to keep your job in an attempt to support your family, that is noble; it says you value your family more than you value your paycheck. If you lie only for the paycheck, regardless of your family values, then you are selfish. The line is fine, and as you say, very sharp. --SamuelFalvo?

I just don't feel comfortable at all making such a blatant lie. I get a big knot in my stomach from both the shame and the guilt. Plus, I'm such a bad liar that I stumble over speech trying to coordinate and manage two universes in my mind (the real one and the lie) while trying to talk and explain things. I'd need a 3-core mind for that.
One of my teachers always said: "You must have good arguments to avoid doing the wrong thing." You could have pointed out the downsides of lying to your customer: You might not lie convincingly enough. This lie would imply other downsides which might become obvious shortly. The customer could find out and dump the commpany... GetItInWriting. that way, you have evidence that it was asked of you, and you can also skirt the truth if you cannot lie.

They'd tell me the pen is at the unemployment office. There was no incentive for them to sign.

Telling the truth is simple - there's only one version of it. Telling a lie requires you a) know what you want to say, and b) remember it when asked later. If they can't tell you what to say in writing so you are clear about it, they obviously don't want a consistent story.

There's a web rumor that Dick Cheney once said that the most important thing he learned from the Nixon era is to never write anything down and never record it. He is known for having left a thin documentation trail while in The House. The lie was simple in this case, "we used X to make a Y", and didn't need to be written down.

Sometimes, doing the right thing feels like an indulgence. It shouldn't. I'm sure I could find reasons why it wasn't in your self interest to lie (probability of being caught; of being expected to lie again, or worse; the certain knowledge that if they'll lie to customers, they'll lie to you) but the biggest one is loss of self-respect and sense of self. If you break your own principles and lie to protect your pay cheque, where does it stop? Ultimately, lying to the customer can buy you time if you're in a hole, but you're still in the hole, and you're making it harder to get out of the hole. I bet you've never been glader to lose a job than that one. --BenAveling

You assume that "slippery slope" is true. When the company folded I certainly cannot say I missed them, but remember this was during the dot-com meltdown and the field was entering a big slump in California. My web experience was the only "new" resume-able experience I had (ExBase and DEC-VAX was rapidly declining in popularity). My upbringing also "taught" me that providing for one's family is also a prime duty. Thus ConflictingRequirements. I was living a milder form of "Les Miserables": steal bread or die. I am not saying I had no options if I suddenly left, but making a decision to step into the uncertain void carried with it obvious risk to my financial situation. (I later did try some entrepreneurial projects, but didn't fair so well. The technical part is only about 30% of such businesses, and I didn't have an immediate knack for the other 70%.)

I'm guessing here, but my guess is that the project was in trouble, the company was in trouble, and lying might have prevented everything from being shut down straight away. If so, then what comes next? The project is still in trouble, the company is still in trouble and now you have two things to lie about - the original trouble and the fictitious claim. So now, if you want to stop lying, you have to admit not only that you are in trouble, but that you have been lying about it. So yes, I do see a slippery slope here. --BenAveling

It was not clear at the time that the company was in trouble. True, they said they were going through a rough period, but not enough to be alarmed about.

Nod, nod. If it's any consolation, I suspect they had themselves persuaded that everything was going to be OK, somehow, if only they could hang on a little longer. In a situation like this you have to balance long and short term. Starving to death is unrecoverable. Being unemployed is a set-back from which most people recover. Stealing and lying are not long term solutions. At best, they give you more time to find a real solution but they both have a personal cost, even if you don't get caught, which you eventually will. --BenAveling

The risk of "getting caught" was rather small, or at least of small consequences to me. It's not like there is a national black-list for the niche involved and it did not involve safety or medical equipment. I'm not condoning it, only saying that weighing the practical trade-offs, the risks of going along and getting caught with big consequences were small compared to the immediate consequences to my family of losing the job.

But I agree with your assessment that the owners probably felt similar pressure and it became a domino affect as far as the moral impact chain. What was also frustrating is that they didn't even try to be consoling. It was along the lines of, "We give you orders and you follow them like a good, loyal soldier. Your conscience be damned; this is business for big boys, not children."


Was this at one of those companies where project management is too busy designing logos, (which is why design is creating the project plan) and the programmer got stuck with PR duty because both sales and customer service were busy 'fixing' the source code? Lying to the customer wouldn't seem to give any more sense of job security in a place like that (or any place where they'd threaten to fire you for not lying).

How much temptation there must've been to say "No, the boss originally told us not to use X, but now he has agreed to rebuild Y for you from scratch, using X this time, at no additional charge. We've got it built, but not completely ready for use yet." then tell your boss "Sure, I lied, and I told him we'd built Y using X..."

Future promises were ruled out as a substitute.


In top's above example, this is where one needs to go to those in charge and get careful clarification of that which was "implied", then when one is clear on the issue, it is easy to tell the customer "I was told to tell you 'X'..." No lying necessary, as you are doing what you were told, and you are upfront about it. Take the high road.

Two partial owners were asking me to lie. It was a small company, there were not a lot of levels.


This is not nearly so difficult as it seams. First some lies are felonies. If this is one of them do not do it. You will not win, and you may very well loose. If this is not the case then know the distinctions. You can rely on the' good faith of others' if you repeat what you latter learn is a falsehood but not if you originate it. If the lie is material to the customers decision it is a best civil fraud and at worst Criminal Fraud. If you use the telephone to do it and/or cross state lines it is Federal. The feds have a lot more time on their hands than local LEOS when it comes to white collar crime so you may have an issue. Now if you think you can use the 'distress of being fired' to mitigate any penalties you should realize that if you are the technical expert, and your boss denies all knowledge of the incident, then they will hang it around you neck in a heartbeat. If it is within your area responsibility you will be presumed to be in the know, or at best you will be presumed to be willfully ignorant and thus complicit. Perjury is a real risk here.

The only thing worse than loosing a job is loosing a job and going to jail or loosing your net worth and your career as well.

Your best option is to document everything but is such a way ( encrypted off-site etc) that you and you alone can get to it. This will help you give the Feds what they will really want --your Boss -- should it come to that. In most cases if has come to fraud, it is not likely that the company will last very long anyway. If you do what they ask but are not a full co-conspirator they will assume that you are a risk and get rid of you anyway-- if they are any good at this at all they will fire you for lying to the customer just before or perhaps just after they figure out that the jig is up, and claim that they were also mislead by you. They may even try the embezzling charge gambit . You can not win against the dealer --- you can only not play.

Now I have never been in this exact situation-- I have been asked to turn and look away ( as it this time 'bill' going to do the test you have been working to hard) and I have been asked not to put things in writing ( no need I have asked Mary to do that) -- I have never refused as long and it was not my primary job responsibility, and as long as there was no issue of fraud. (Fraud requires intent and often but not always materiality. ) I also tended to document privately anyway just in case, but never if I had any real evidence -- If you know and do not report you are liable , but if you say 'When I asked about x my Boss said not to worry about it so I assumed it was handled and figured I should get back to my real job ' you will be in much better shape than if try to claim that you knew nothing about it at all especially in a small office.

Now, I must caution you that I am not a lawyer and even if I was the law is very fluid in this area.

One thing you can do is speak with counsel. You may find that under the law of your state you were already constructively fired, and you may file for benefits ( if not a 10-99) and you may sue for wrongful discharge. If you are a 10-99 you may face increased liability and the issue of 'following orders ' gets even more problematic.

Do not allow your documentation to include privileged or confidential information, nor source code or any Intellectual Property of your employer. This can hurt you and make it look like you were fired for cause even if they did not know exactly what you were up to until pre-trial discovery -- 'all we know is that his behavior changed and when we investigated the next day he stared this litigation stuff'.

If you even think that you are in fraud situation get the hell out--- that's it.

However ::::

Now, if your Boss says 'tell the customer we use OOD/OOP' and you think that that's not really correct and you tell your boss that that is fraud-- well I would not only fire you I would sue you myself. Marketing is not lying. It is not fraud. And it is also not honest. If your wife asks if she looks fat in these pants the answer is never yes. If you want to date that cutie in the back of the class, then, when you help her with her homework, she is always improving. Do you see the pattern?

It is ok to use marketing speak when doing marketing. This is because everybody knows that marketing is BS including the customer. Be aware of the lines and do not cross them. Say 'we use a propriety OOD/OOP method customized to our customers unique requirements'.. GOT IT? IF you don't then you should find another line of work.

-- I am not a Lawyer use at your own Risk.

In this particular case it seemed that most likely nothing more than civil (monetary) damages would result. It wasn't a medical device or car part. Sure, there's a small risk of a criminal suit, but I judged it as very unlikely. Most companies who are "ripped off" are after economic compensation above locking people up. It's also more paper work and court-time for a company to pursue criminal charges, and thus costlier to them. Further, the functionality of the product wasn't at issue, but rather the nature of the components, such as vendor X's part was used instead of vendor Y's. The DA's criminal office would probably say, "WTF?" and pass. They have far greater problems to worry about. I see very little case history to suggest such is a significant statistical risk. Again, I'm not condoning it, only looking at legal risks here. -t


I grew more left-leaning after that episode. Capitalism has some ugly sharp edges. - top

Riiiight, 'cause nobody ever lies about production or technical correctness or quality in a socialist country? -- MikeSmith

Extremes of both socialism and capitalism stink. It's best to find a balance. Also note that socialism and capitalism are generally orthogonal to political system, such that a non-democracy may lean toward capitalism and a democratic nation may lean toward socialism. Non-democracies are generally "more cruel" than democracies regardless of the economic system being used because they usually don't have to answer to angry citizens.

In general, socialist-leaning democracies have a better safety net and there are less incentives for an employer to take extreme actions. The people there are less worried about losing their home etc. No, it isn't perfect, but not as "edgy" as the USA. And when bad times hit, the systems there are more geared to spread the pain evenly, such as Friday furloughs for all instead of layoffs. From an individual's perspective, the booms are boomier and busts bustier in the US. Life is more unstable. We have bigger houses and bigger cars, but we are also more likely to lose that house and car.

I remember an e-conversation I had with some Indian programmers about the pain of being replaced by an H1B visa worker or offshoring to India. I told them not only do we lose our job, but have no idea what the longer term prospects are for our programming careers. They were dismayed that the US government offered very little help to those displaced via cheap foreign labor, such as better unemployment compensation and re-training in another field. I told them, "Nope, it's still the Wild West out here. Fall off your horse and break a leg and there's nobody around except the horse and the leg. Maybe you get a 2-inch Band-Aide and some coupons for Coke."

{The advantage of the free market is that you could switch jobs, whereas if you were working for the government in a communist society, you may have no choice but to lie for the government - the government would be the only employer - forming an employment monopoly. Free markets have whistle blowers that expose bad companies, whereas in communist countries you might get shot for saying something. Look at china. On the other hand, the USA is not really a free market.. when Citibank got bailed out, that was socialism bailing out capitalism (an ironic paradox). In the real free market, scumbag companies that lie or screw with mortgage approvals and cheat the system would die and go belly up. Whereas when capitalist companies are bailed out by socialism/subsidization, these scumbags survive and are not really in a free market. The free market reminds me a bit too much like evolution though - it is a harsh process weeding out companies - which is sometimes good if things need to be weeded out - but sometimes bad since evolution leads to hatred/superiority (wolves kill mice in evolution and think mice are inferior. Oh joy, how nice that is to the poor mice - it's like racism against a species. If humans were the mice being eaten by super mega wolves, we would think evolution is bad. When we are at the top of the food chain, evolution is great.}

One often can't find another job during a down market, at least not in your field. Theoretical choice and practical choice are not always in sync.

Political systems and economic systems are somewhat orthogonal. The world now has socialistic economies in democratic political systems, and (mostly) capitalistic economic systems under dictators. They used to be closely related, but things have changed.
CategoryEmployment, CategoryProfessionalism, CategoryEthics, CategoryLifeStrategies
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