Over the course of my career I’ve witnessed first hand how expedience sometimes wins out over the facts when push comes to shove, but it doesn’t have to be that way in your organization. In fact, here are a few best practices for fostering an environment where honesty and candor win out over deception and misdirection.
- Remember, it starts at the top: The single biggest lesson of my career in small business is that the guy or gal in charge sets the tone. If you are dishonest or disingenuous with your customers and employees, they will be that way to you. What’s more, it’s the little things that can bite you in the behind. If you make a promise, keep it. If you promise an employee a review and a potential raise for exceptional performance, make sure you follow through. If you promise a customer you’ll make sure and order the “widget” that was backordered as soon as you hang up the phone, make the call. Like it or not, your employees are watching what you do and how you keep your word. I know that once in a while stuff happens and we all forget what my grandmother (and likely yours) taught us when she said, “Honesty is the best policy.” When that happens, don’t waste time. Make it right.
- Cheaters never win: Early in my career, I learned this the hard way. I once lied to a customer about the status of a shipment of materials because, although it hadn’t arrived the day promised, it would arrive the next day. This pacified my customer and got me off the hook—until it didn’t arrive the next day. This continued for the next three days until he was concerned enough about his shipment he was considering calling the Police and Highway Patrol to see if the trucker had stolen his load. After the first call, I found out it was still sitting in the yard loaded in a trailer that was to have left days before but didn’t. Dispatch assured me it would leave that night, so I made up a story that came back to bite me. After four days I eventually had to face the music and admit that I’d lied about the shipment. Needless to say, I lost the business, the trust of my customer, and my self-respect. I would have been much better served to have admitted that the trailer was still in the yard and find out what the customer wanted me to do. Sure, I may have lost the customer anyway for failing to do what was promised, but he could have still trusted me and I would have maintained my self-respect. I have never made that mistake again.
- Accept that stuff happens: I once knew a guy who worked on the inside sales desk who regularly hid his mistakes. If he underbid a project and we won the contract, he would hide the evidence. Our boss at that time had no tolerance for mistakes. When I say “no tolerance” I mean zero. If a mistake was made, he took great pride in publicly castigating the offender, basically pushing mistakes underground where they could fester and become more and more expensive over time. Sometimes they resulted in upset customers, but often they resulted in doing business at a loss. When my colleague accepted another job, we discovered the “secret” files of projects he’d underbid or purchase orders he’d spent too much on hidden in his desk. Looking back, his dishonesty was as much the fault of our boss as his personal compromise of integrity. Our boss’ inability to deal with the mistakes that inevitably happen made it difficult to fix problems before they cost his company money. People are going to make mistakes; learning from them doesn’t require public humiliation. What’s more, playing it safe to avoid mistakes creates boring products and services that most people don’t want to buy.
- Don’t shoot the messenger: I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people who should know better lash out at the poor guy or gal that shares bad news. Most of us understand all that does is train people to hide bad news. I can guarantee that the last thing the person bringing you bad news wants to do is bring you bad news. From time to time I’ve been the barer of bad news and there have been other times I’ve been on the receiving end of the same. A bad reaction doesn’t change the situation and may even make it worse. Don’t forget, “stuff happens.” If you can’t control your emotions and insist on lashing out, at least excuse the messenger, close your door, and have a private tantrum. Running a business requires that we deal with the bad as well as the good.
- Don’t accept dishonesty as a cost of doing business: In retail they call it breakage. Basically it’s merchandise that is stolen by customers and staff. I imagine it’s almost impossible to eliminate completely, but employees who steal shouldn’t be employees. Over the course of my Main Street small business career, I’ve seen my fair share of colleagues “dip into the till.” I’ve also seen some business owners make excuses for the dishonesty of people they considered “key” employees and not only allowed it to happen—they facilitated it. Unfortunately, if employees are stealing from you, they’re doing the same thing to your customers. And remember, it starts with you. If you’re dishonest to your customers and employees, don’t be surprised if they are dishonest with you. I once worked in an office where the IT department needed to anchor everything down in the conference rooms because cables and even computers were regularly being stolen. One employee was caught red-handed helping himself to a monitor he thought he deserved more than the employee who was using it. Other than the embarrassment of getting caught, there weren’t any consequences for his theft. The message that sent was crystal clear.
What do you do to ensure that honesty thrives within your organization?