When does a white lie become something different?

With CIPR’s ethics month taking place in September, CIPR Inside is keen to support members working in internal communication. We invited Hannah Thoresby, one of our committee members, to share a post with us on ethics as she took part in the ethics round table last year with CIPR and has helped many organisations navigate their ethical path.


Over to Hannah:

Hannah Thoresby

Hannah Thoresby


Our standards of ethics come into question when you consider that most of us encounter nearly 200 lies a day1.

“I tell my partner those jeans look good when they don’t. My friend would far rather I said the kids are sick than I don’t feel like coming to your party. And everyone knows it’s okay to translate I overslept and missed my flight into My flight was delayed by three hours.”

Indeed, there’s a compelling case to be made that social lying is what makes us human2. But when does a white lie (told to save face, protect relationships or preserve social order) become something different?

We often justify our lies by constructing narratives that show why lying was the right thing to do. If you told your partner that their chosen outfit made them look like a right clown, you’d have upset them and hurt their feelings and ruined a nice occasion. But because you lied through your teeth and said they looked splendid, you both enjoyed the evening and no-one was any the wiser. So in fact, you were the good guy!

Except that when your partner looked at the photographs, you came up against their own competing narrative. If you’d done your job as a good and loving partner and been honest about how they really looked, they might have been hurt and angry with you for a minute, but they could have changed their outfit. Instead, thanks to your selfish lie, they spent the evening looking ridiculous and now they can’t trust you any more. You lied; you were the baddie; off to the doghouse you go.

Ethics logo

So who’s right and who’s wrong? What was the best thing to do? Whose narrative wins?

I’ve used a social example, but this problem comes up all the time in business comms too. When everything’s going well, communicating is easy. But how do we handle news that’s difficult, uncertain or even just plain bad? Do we risk the anger and demotivation that might come from telling the truth? Do we try and put a positive spin on things (“That looks so great on you darling, but I think I like the other outfit even better!”)? Do we keep quiet and hope everything blows over? And what will happen to everyone’s trust levels if one day the truth comes out?

At H&H, we work with organisations on defining and embedding their values. Unsurprisingly, the question of ethics comes up here too.  Most of us are more than happy to agree to certain core principles about how we’re going to work together – for example, “We will all treat each other with respect”.  But what happens when we have a high-achieving manager who delivers brilliant results, but who routinely belittles their team in front of others? Are we really ready to stand by our principles, and discipline or potentially get rid of someone who brings home the organisation’s bacon?

Don’t ask, don’t tell

Some organisations fudge this issue by operating a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy; as long as the results keep coming in, the bully is allowed to keep bullying. The cost of this decision – cynicism, loss of trust and respect for senior managers, and ultimately disengagement – is very high, maybe far higher than the benefits of keeping hold of the high-performing manager. Nonetheless, many of us find it difficult to stand by our values and take the short-term pain of resolving the situation.

Sometimes, what we as managers perceive as unethical behaviour comes from a conflict between organisational and personal values. Principles that we arrogantly take for granted as universal (“it’s not okay to award contracts to family members”) often turn out to be culturally-specific. This is a challenge we’ve seen for some of our clients who operate in emerging countries. Faced with the choice of violating an abstract company principle, or betraying their personal value of support for their extended family, employees may make a choice that we in the West find unethical, but that they consider highly moral and even heroic.

Choosing to die rather than to violate their belief…

If you’d like an example of how far we’ll go to maintain our own private ethical standards over organisational ones, here’s the most extreme one we know of. During the Vietnam war, American military commanders were puzzled as to why their troops, despite far superior weapons, were routinely being overcome and killed by the Viet-Cong. After investigating, they uncovered the truth. Many American soldiers – conscripted, poorly-trained and unconvinced of the morality of their cause – were deliberately firing over the heads of their opponents3. They were literally choosing to die rather than to violate their belief that killing other people was wrong.

That’s a dark and unsettling story, but it illustrates what company values really are. They’re not something we sacrifice when times are tough; they’re something we’re willing to sacrifice for. Let’s go back to the example of the overbearing manager for a minute. If your organisation would let their behaviour continue because they get results, then your true value is not “Respect each other”, it’s “Get the job done no matter what”. But if you’d discipline and maybe even dismiss a high-performing bully, then you’re part of an organisation that truly has “Respect each other” as a core value.

If you’re wondering if any of this really matters, here’s a couple of interesting statistics to end on. By 2025, Millennials will make up an estimated 75% of the workforce. And recent study by www.NetImpact.org found that 58% of Millennials would accept a 15% pay cut to work for “an organisation whose values are like my own”. If you want to hold onto your employees, it’s time to start thinking hard about ethics.

1 For more impressive insights into how to spot lies, visit www.liespotting.com
2 Check Ian Leslie’s fantastic book Born Liars.
3 This heart-breaking story comes from Jon Ronson’s brilliant exploration of the US Military, The Men Who Stare At Goats.



Huge thanks to Hannah for a great read. CIPR will be hosting a variety of activities during September to help members learn more about ethics and support their own CPD. CIPR Inside is also planning an ethics webinar so watch this space for details of our bespoke event for Internal communicators.

Watch out for our internal communication conference  – Making an Impact 

Does your internal communication make an impact?

CIPR Inside’s next annual internal communication conference is on 13 October, and the day is full of award-winning communicators who will share with us what they have done in their organisations to make a real difference with their internal communication. Find out more here

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