Once, when I was working in recruitment, I interviewed a confident, good looking Aussie guy who was keen to get a role in a US investment bank in Canary Wharf. We had an interesting discussion and, at the end, I asked him for his passport and certificates that verified his qualifications, so that I could make copies. He handed them over and I left to make the required duplicates for our files. He was unlucky, or I was fortunate, as, perhaps unbeknown to him, I had met with a chap with the same surname to discuss a work opportunity the previous week and taken copies of his credentials. I was struck by the similarity in name and looks and wondered if they were brothers. Also, there was something about the smooth talking charmer, in the room I had just left, that didn’t feel quite right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Instead of going to the photocopier, I went to the hard copy files and looked up what turned out to be his brother’s qualifications – the number on both certificates, theoretically proving that the named individual was a qualified accountant, was identical. Looking closely, I could make that an excellent copy of the older fellow’s certificate had been tampered with to make a convincing certificate for the younger sibling. Needless to say, the silver-tongued Aussie with the fake documentation was not recommended by me to the bank in Canary Wharf, nor by my firm for any role.
However, although it is said that “honesty is the best policy”, clearly, in addition to my antipodean contact mentioned above, a number of businesses and individuals have not been following the approach: much to some members of the public's disgust, Tesco’s “Big Price Drop” has come after the retailer ramped up the prices of many specified goods for a brief period of time before the promotion commenced – for example Tesco’s own Brand Fruit & Nut Muesli cost £1.28 on August 16th, rose to £1.89 on August 23rd to finally drop to £1.75 on September 26th. There is also concern amongst consumers that the “Big Price Drop” occurred at the same time as an announcement was made of a reduction in Clubcard rewards points for shoppers (people believe that one has been used to pay for the other). It feels a bit like robbing Peter to pay Paul and that the store thought customers too stupid to notice. In Tesco’s defense, the retailer has suffered its worst sales results with profits dropping by 10% in the last quarter - perhaps that could justify the reduction of reward points which are a bonus rather than a right. The manipulation of costs to create a favourable impression is more questionable.
In another example, Rupert Murdoch’s flagship publication, the Wall Street Journal, is about to be investigated, due to allegations that sales figures were artificially boosted. My printing and publishing contacts tell me that this might be the nail that secures Murdoch’s coffin. From the evidence it is easy to presume that both News International and Tesco’s seem to subscribe to Plato’s view that “honesty is for the most part less profitable than dishonesty”, but I am of the opinion that after centuries of reflecting the commercial reality of business, the opinion is finally becoming out dated.
The corporate and political scandals of recent years (and indeed of more recent occurrences) have undermined public trust – part of the reason that individuals are camping out by St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London, burning police vehicles in Rome and setting up tents to occupy Wall Street, is to protest against perceived dishonest conduct and to demand a better and more supportive future. People expect openness and honesty and, with the advent of technology, it is quite easy to find out and publish information that exposes lies and deceptions. People have had enough of being kept in the dark and paying hidden charges. They will seek out counterparties with whom they feel comfortable doing business. Honesty is important – relationships are based on trust. As Franklin D. Roosevelt so eloquently put it:
“Confidence…thrives on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection and on unselfish performance. Without them it cannot live.”
I spent this morning discussing Sustainability with a leading strategist for a household-name-business. We both agreed that a key element of future business will be collaboration, especially within close communities. For collaboration to work there needs to be open dialogue and trust.
It is hard to work or live with others without honesty. But even honesty can be damaging. I believe that The Governor of The Bank of England, Sir Mervyn King, was being honest when he expressed his opinion that “this is the most serious financial crisis we have seen at least since the 1930’s, if not ever”. I also believe that his words have added to the fear and concern both in the Media and the markets, potentially making a bad situation worse. It is important to be aware of the impact your words may have on others. My cousin really brought this home to me when we went on a family outing to a beautiful Georgian stately home, which was open for the day near him. He has two super young sons, there is a three year age difference between them and they are bright and inquisitive. At the house, all visitors above a certain age needed to buy a ticket to get inside, but children under six could go free. The attendant selling tickets asked my cousin how many tickets he needed and he replied that as one boy was just six he would require a ticket, although his brother was exempt. The ticket salesman expressed amazement that my cousin had incurred an unnecessary expense, as he would not have questioned the age of the older boy, and would have let him in for free. My cousin explained that that was not the point – the boys would have known. Being honest says more than just the words that are spoken; it is a reflection on you and for maximum impact remember, it’s not just what you say or do, it’s the way that you say and do it. Or, as Ella Fitzgerald sang: