My mum died last year. In her life she taught me many things, but the one lesson I most remember is that honesty is the best policy. She told me that you had the choice of either telling the truth or developing an infallible memory and, since the latter is virtually impossible, you were better off, in the long run, simply telling the truth.
Well, I am not sure I always agreed with her, especially when I was really young. For example, I can remember her saying to me that if I simply owned up when I did something wrong, I would not get into any trouble. On one occasion, when I had accidentally broken a neighbour’s window, nobody knew who had done it, so at first I decided to just keep my mouth shut. There was a big kafuffle about the issue and, eventually, I did own up – then, boy was I in trouble! Despite this and similar experiences, over the years, it really is a principle I have come to believe in.
I can remember specific situations in the workplace, when something unexpected had occurred and people would ask: what should we tell the customer? Somewhere along the way – I don’t remember making an actual decision to do this – but at some point, I started saying to people: well why don’t we just tell them the truth? Of course, the reason that people often don’t is because the truth can be difficult. But I eventually decided that despite the difficulty, it was often much better to explain what had happened than to invent some story.
Here’s a real incident that happened when I was a young computer engineer. At the time, I was installing networks. They were a new thing and it was back, even before the days of Ethernet (amazing eh?) when you had to set the machine address using dip switches on the printed circuit board inside – ah, happy days! Anyway, the office controlled my schedule directly, not me. I never worried about what was in it and never looked beyond, about, a one week horizon because the schedule was just too fluid.
So, one day, I looked at my schedule for the week ahead and noticed that I was double-booked on one particular day. It was simply an admin mistake. So I called the office and notified them. They told me they would get back to me and eventually I received a phone call to say that it was all sorted out and that they had rearranged one of the two appointments. I didn’t give it another thought. However, eventually, I was at the appointment that had been postponed. There I was, with the machine in bits and Omninet board in hand, thinking of nothing apart from what I was doing, when someone from that office asked me,
“Are you better now?”
“Better?” I responded with, almost certainly, a puzzled expression on my face.
“Yes. You have been ill haven’t you?”, the person added.
“No” I said, still trying to fathom why this person was so apparently confused.
It was only after that person had walked away that the penny finally dropped. Obviously, what had happened is that the office had told the customer that they needed to cancel the appointment because I was unwell, and nobody had told me. Now, how do you think this situation looked to the customer? It was clear that someone from our company had been untruthful. Why? Because it was an easier conversation than saying something like,
“I’m sorry, we have made an admin mistake. Our engineer is double-booked and we need to rearrange your appointment.”
But, you know something? It would have been the best thing really. Of course, I don’t know what the consequences of this seemingly unimportant event turned out to be, but if I were the customer, learning that the company had lied to me would be a reason I might choose to not give them repeat business. And that’s how it works.
Years later, when I left a company where I subsequently worked as a Technical Manager, again in the IT industry, I remember one of my team remarking that one thing I had taught her during my time with the company, was to always tell the customers the truth. It is something that I felt really pleased about at the time. I didn’t go round the office telling people to do this but somehow, more by example than anything else, I think, this person had got the message.
Honesty really is the best policy – my mum was absolutely right!