Honesty + Trust = Integrity
Integrity is one of the fundamental values of an ethical person. To be a person of integrity means to be honest and trustworthy. Honesty entails more than being truthful. Telling an untruth is a lie by commission. Failing to disclose information another party has a need or right to know is a lie by omission, also known as “exclusionary detailing.”
Exclusionary detailing is lying by either omitting certain facts or by failing to correct a misconception. An example of the former is telling your mom that you completed your homework assignment when you copied it from a friend. In the case of the latter, your friend, who is a locker room attendant, invites you to football practice and puts on a football uniform. You believe he is a player and not a helper.
Most people try to tell the truth. Some tell “white lies” and believe it is acceptable. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ethics is not like a spigot you can turn on and off whenever you feel like it. To be an ethical person means to strive to be truthful in all relationships to gain the trust of others.
Here’s an example of the danger of telling a white lie and then rationalizing why it is all right – and even believe it is better than being truthful: Your wife comes home from a shopping trip and puts on her new dress. She asks for your opinion about it. You think the colors are all wrong and makes her look older than she is. What should you do? Do you lie by telling her you like it? Do you tell the truth and risk hurting her feelings? Or, do you skirt the issue by saying something like “you look good in full length dresses?”
Let’s take it one step further. Your wife wears the dress at a family gathering. A close cousin confides in you that she thinks it makes her look like a “schoolmarm.” You shake your head in agreement. Your wife overhears the conversation. Now you are in hot water.
Once you tell a lie you begin the slide down the proverbial “ethical slippery slope.” Just one small ethical lapse can snowball into big trouble. The concept of an ethical slippery slope is one that defines behavior when a person first decides to deceive others by consciously covering up or lying about past statements or behaviors. Over time it becomes more difficult to reverse course because the decision maker is committed to the deceitful action; then since most people don't want others (e.g., the wife) to know about the initial, wrongful action, the cover up begins or the lies slowly become untangled and the truth emerges.
How unethical behavior unfolds over time was studied for the first time by a group of professors who found empirical evidence about how committing small ethical indiscretions over time can lead to larger infractions. Some people rationalize their behavior by saying ‘No one got hurt’ or ‘Everyone does it.’ The next time they feel fine about doing something a little bit worse and then commit more severe unethical actions.
To be an ethical person means to make ethics part of your personal identity much like hard work defines you in the workplace. Be vigilant about small ethical lapses and deal with them quickly to prevent larger ones. If you make a mistake by lying, covering up improper behavior, or failing to tell the truth, you should correct the record as soon as possible. Most people are forgiving so long as they sense the deceiver is genuinely remorseful for their behavior and promises to not do it again.
Finally, recall that in sworn testimony the witness promises: “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”