by Sarah Jenkins and Rick Delbridge
A number of corporate scandals—Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, and Enron for example—have emerged in recent years which have brought into focus the ethical practices of organizations. Questions are asked regarding the extent to which deception is endemic in contemporary business life. Yet little is known about how organizations support and promote lying.
How do organizations enlist their employees to lie for a living? How do employees respond when lying is part of their job?
These questions became relevant when we studied an organization – VoiceTel (a pseudonym) – which provided virtual reception services to a number of organizations throughout the UK. The in-depth study into VoiceTel provides a rare opportunity to examine lying that is an integral and intrinsic feature of work rather than being selective, intermittent and associated with a specific occupational group.
Deception was a cornerstone of the VoiceTel’s business from its start and key to its ongoing success. To deliver a high quality professional service, employees were required to conceal that they were not physically located in their clients’ premises and never disclose to their customers that they actually worked for an out-sourced reception provider.
How did the organization ensure receptionists abided by this requirement? How did employees feel about lying as an intrinsic part of their job?
To examine how lying became an accepted, legitimate, and ultimately even a joyful activity for the employees we interviewed three quarters of the workforce. We explain how lying became normalized due to three inter-related organizational processes: institutionalization, rationalization, and socialization.
Market success reinforced why the organization promoted deception as a business strategy; the culture emphasized the positive values of high-quality professional customer care; the owners were visible and conveyed to employees that they were respected and trusted. Employees were expected to reciprocate in their relations with their customers and employers, as the co-owner Laura commented,
‘To have good people doing this job, the job had to have responsibility and accountability cos otherwise people would see it as a really tedious job if you didn’t have that relationship with your clients. I mean if we’re trusting people to look after our clients’ calls, we should be able to trust them’.
Employees were selected and recruited because of their customer service values. Relations between employees and clients developed organically as employees were given space and discretion to negotiate the nature of the service clients required. The willingness to deceive the customers of clients rested on the nature and depth of the social relations developed between individual receptionists and their clients.
As the requirement to deceive was not enforced or prescribed by the owners; they were not ‘tainted’ by enforcing lying as a work feature. Employees had considerable freedom to negotiate the degree of deception required by their clients. Lying became experienced as a normal job feature and one which employees took ownership of.
The ability to lie well and to pretend that they were physically located in the offices of their clients was interpreted by receptionists as ensuring professional service delivery. Consequently, this appeal to the provision of a high-quality bespoke service was a way of neutralizing any damaging consequences of deception.
Receptionists’ decisions to deceive callers rested on close working relationships. The stronger the relationship and the more the receptionist identified with the client, the more likely they were to engage in serious acts of deception and to rationalize this as appropriate in the context of that relationship.
‘We are lying, we are lying [laughs]. I think I’ve got three or four clients that want us to put across that they’re a bigger company and that is a reason for some of them to want to use an answering service cos they want to come across as though they’ve got this reception desk and that they quite like the office sound in the background cos it sounds as though their company’s bigger’.
Lying became normalized partly because there were organizational expectations on employees to do so, but also because employees rationalized the requirements to lie as a legitimate and important feature of work.
Socialization: Learning to lie and loving it
To ensure deception is enacted, the work group ensures that lying is conceived as a legitimate and a joyful experience. Team leaders were supportive and helped receptionists to learn to lie on the job. Becoming proficient at lying was an important dimension in receptionists’ positive identifications with their job; working experiences were varied and interesting and receptionists considered themselves as skilful and ‘professional’:
‘You have to be professional at lying, in a nice sense I always say. People ask me what I do for a living, and I say I am a professional liar, you know, cos I am really, I mean having to think on your feet, and I think that is why I have stayed so long, cos every day is different and every scenario is different’
Lying was satisfying and empowering as receptionists used their creativity and inventiveness.
Lying also brought social endorsement from the work group. Receptionists achieved high social status from becoming seen as an ‘expert liar’ by their peers. This boosted individuals’ reputations, sanctioned lying as a positive, fun and creative experience and reinforced group cohesion,
‘Ruth’s the best one…She comes up with some corkers: ‘I’ve just walked in, you couldn’t have spoken to me this morning’. I use that quite a lot and ‘oh, I’m just temping here today’…And, ‘I’m helping out on the front desk as a temp, so I don’t know the answer to your question so I’ll get someone from the office to call you back’, you know, something like that. I use those quite a lot’.
Lying became embedded, maintained and strengthened over time as a legitimate and integral part of work through the actions of the organization from the top-down but also because of the actions of employees from the bottom-up. Employees gained recognition from their proficiency in deception and drew considerable satisfaction, self-esteem and status as employees who are trusted to deceive.
Is lying in organizations a problem?
Rather than attributing blame or labelling individuals ‘morally dubious’, the study raises questions about the ethical implications of organizations that require their employees to deceive. The organization promoted deception by appealing to the positive virtues of customer care to support lying as legitimate. This is potentially worrying because the power of the ideology of customer service in increasingly ‘consumer driven’ societies leads us to speculate on how far employees may go in the name of quality customer service.
Sarah Jenkins is a Senior Lecturer at Cardiff Business School & Rick Delbridge is a Professor & Dean of Research, Innovation & Enterprise at Cardiff University. This article summarizes findings from their paper “Trusted to Deceive: A Case Study of ‘Strategic Deception’ and the Normalization of Lying at Work” in Organization Studies.
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