Lies and White Lies

How to distinguish between a permissible white lie at work, and a hurtful one.
June 3, 2009
Bob Stone
By Bob Stone  |  Contributor
Bob Stone is a GOVERNING contributor. He consults, teaches ethical leadership and leading change, and serves as a member of the governing council and faculty of the Ukleja Center for Ethical Leadership at California State University, Long Beach.

Truth telling is high on any list of ethical behaviors. Lying seems to be the one unforgivable sin. Bill Clinton's biggest crime in the eyes of many was wagging his finger at the TV camera and saying in all faked sincerity, "I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman." Juries that have a hard time understanding the subtleties of insider trading, shady accounting, and White House spinning don't have any trouble spotting a lie and delivering a guilty verdict for Martha Stewart, Jeffrey Skilling, and Scooter Libby - to name a few whose convictions came because they didn't tell the truth.

Lies are deceptions, as the American Heritage Dictionary puts it:

  1. To present false information with the intention of deceiving.
  2. To convey a false image or impression: Appearances often lie.

Actually, deception isn't inherently unethical, nor is presenting false information with the intent of deceiving, in spite of what our favorite dictionary says. Deception is a time-honored part of many pursuits. In football, for more than a hundred years, quarterbacks have attempted to deceive defenses by faking a pass, then executing a run, or vice versa. That deception is okay, even praised. And in baseball, pitchers deceive batters with changeups, slow pitches thrown with the same motion as a fastball. And of course in law enforcement undercover work, deception is a crucial contributor to police efforts to keep communities safe.

So some kinds of lies are perfectly ethical.

Most are not, even though ethical people are sometimes pressed to lie. The most common occurrence is over secrets. Your boss asks your help in planning a layoff that the organization is faced with, and you agree to keep the information confidential. Then a friend asks you if you've heard anything about a planned layoff.

There's no easy answer to this classic ethical dilemma. Do you lie or do you break your commitment? A person in this situation must choose. With experience, the ethical person will recognize the danger and try to avoid being placed in such a compromising situation. Perhaps one could suggest to the boss that it's best to be more open with the workers when times are tough; the rumor mill is often more damaging to morale than the truth.

In public service, there are many opportunities to believe - wrongly - that it serves the public good to lie. Scooter Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, lied to cover up the vice president's role in the campaign to impugn the writings of a critic of President Bush's Iraq policy.

Lying can't be justified to keep one's job or to protect the boss's programs. A police chief may be asked by the city council whether he agrees with the city manager's reduction in his budget request. He may try to wiggle off the hook by explaining that his personal opinion isn't relevant, that the job requires him to be an advocate for the city manager's budget request. That might get him off the hook, but if the council persists he'll be obliged to answer truthfully, whatever the consequences.

So out-and-out lying is wrong. But what about the "white lie," the lie to avoid hurt feelings? "That's a beautiful baby." "Your hair looks nice." "Good idea, boss." "You're doing a heck of a job, Brownie." While these seem innocent, they're not always.

How to distinguish between a permissible white lie and a hurtful one? It depends on whether action can be taken on the basis of the truth or whether the white lie results in a missed opportunity. "Your hair looks nice," is harmless white lie when your friend is returning from a job interview. But it's a hurtful lie before she leaves for the interview, when there's time to fix it. "Good idea, boss" may be a harmless white lie after the boss has taken an irreversible action, but it's a hurtful lie if it costs the boss a chance to avoid a mistake. If Brownie isn't doing a heck of a job, telling him he is denies him a chance to improve his performance, or perhaps to find another job before you fire him.


  • Be very careful about agreeing to confidentiality. It has the potential to compromise you ethically.
  • Lying in a greater cause (like protecting the President or the city manager's reputation) is still lying. It's neither legally nor ethically excusable.
  • White lies can do just as much damage as plain lies.