Lessons from the Past 56: Grey Areas of Honesty Generally Ignored
The ability to be discreet, to build trust in yourself and, through you, in the organisation; to keep your word and, therefore, to build credibility - can make big demands on a manager. Is it possible always, to be honest? Is there sufficient room for grey areas—through which one can conveniently pass by, without any twitch of conscience?
All this struck me, when I read a small piece in the daily newspaper—that a boy of seven, who lives in a pavement home and was playing outside it, saw a large packet fall out of an auto and the passenger, obviously, had not noticed this. The boy ran up there and picked it up and took it home. The father opened the packet and found currency notes—Rs5 lakh! He took his son to show him the spot – and said that they would wait there for some time, because the owner was bound to find out and could come back, retracing his steps. 
He was right. 
In about 15 minutes, the man came back in the same auto (slowly plying) with the hope that someone had not picked up the parcel. The father went up and asked if the packet belonged to him. It did. The man was overjoyed. He embraced the finder and later gave him a good gift of money.
The father-son duo could have kept the parcel and adopted the principle of ‘finders are keepers’, since the source was anonymous. But they felt that they could not keep what was not theirs, without even trying to find out who it belonged to. 
How I wish the story was given much more space, as a laudable example (rather than all of us reading about robberies and rape, and cheating and violence – and the loud noise about loudspeakers). 
All this got me thinking about the limits of honesty and the many grey areas. It is from these grey areas that some among us graduate into big-time cheating, as is reflected by the lakhs of crores in bad loans that many of our banks are now facing. Here are some examples:
Vita Engineering seemed to be having some quality problems. When the marketing manager spoke to the quality control manager, the latter dismissed these customer complaints with a wave of the hand. “Our products meet the ISI (ISI is the certificate scheme under BIS- Bureau of Indian Standards) standards. If customers want quality beyond that, they can go elsewhere. For us, the cost of creating quality beyond the bare minimum is disproportionate to the extra sales we can get. We only promise ‘good quality’—not extraordinary quality.” 
So, there was a stalemate between marketing on the one side and quality control on the other. It was a borderline case of an honest claim which needed a lot more thought.
Many decades ago, I happened to be in New York and met my friend Raj. At some time, he asked me whether I wanted to send a message to my family in Bombay (no mobiles at that time). I said, “Yes, I will go to the telephone booth and do that sometime during the day.” 
He said if the message was not very personal, he could do that for me easily and for free. He could always ring up from the insurance company where he worked. In fact, he rings up his family in Bombay, at least twice a week. In an organisation of that size, he said, it just does not matter. These are small expenses and no one seems to care. “They all do it,” he said. 
This last statement justified the means. Should I have said ‘Yes’?
Arvind was at the photocopying machine early one morning, before the office started at 9.30am. He seemed to be immersed in getting some photocopying done and had a whole pile which he had already completed. It seemed very unusual for Arvind to be at work so early, because he had the reputation of being late invariably. I asked him what he was busy about. He said his son had wanted parts of a book photocopied and so he had brought it to the office to get it done!
Rohit was on a trip with me to Bengaluru. We were going to attend a conference there for two days. We were going by the morning flight and returning to Mumbai the following evening. Yet, Rohit was carrying a large suitcase which needed checking in. I thought it was strange that he was carrying so much of luggage for just a two-day stay. A small handbag would have been enough. 
It was much later that I found out that Rohit had all his clothes dry-cleaned only when he went on business tours. He seldom spent money of his own to get this done. In his perception, it was an acceptable ‘travel expense’. 
The medical representative of a large multinational pharmaceuticals company travels by second class, but charges the company first-class fare for which he is eligible. He has done this for a long time, so that now he has come to believe that the difference in the two fares is a monthly allowance justifiably due to him, because of the rigours of outdoor work and long periods of stay away from home. 
The company had allowed first-class fare so that the salesman could travel in comfort and be fresh and enthusiastic for his day’s work. This purpose was not being served. With every increase in first-class fares by the railways, the salesman’s side income increased and he was jubilant. 
When the company imposed a regulation that, henceforth, all representatives must attach a railway voucher or ticket with their expense statement, the salesmens’ union went on strike. They felt this new regulation was unfair!
Many will admit that a large corporation will not go bankrupt because of telephone or photocopying expenses. These are small items of expenditure which contribute neither to big profits nor losses. So isn’t it wise to turn a Nelson’s eye to such goings on and concentrate only on large-scale frauds? 
But we must remember that corporate misgovernance begins with these little sparks and, before we know what has happened, they blow up into giant and all-consuming flames. Thus, the procession of Enrons lengthens—to the shame of industry, auditors and governments.
(This article is adapted from Winning Manager, by Walter Vieira – Sage Publications/Amazon)
(Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India (FIMC). He was a corporate executive for 14 years and pioneered marketing consulting in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked across the globe in four continents. He was the first Asian elected Chairman of ICMCI, the world apex body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books; a business columnist; visiting professor on marketing in the US, Europe and Asia. His latest books are "5 Gs of family Business" with Dr Mita Dixit and "Marketing in a Digital/ Data World" with Brian Almeida. He now spends most of the time in NGO work.)
2 years ago
I guess it all boils down to individual honesty like that of the little boy and his father in the autorickhaw incident. Those who return the extra 10 Rs/20 Rs note to the grateful and sheepish railway booking clerk with clumsy fingers will, in general, be upright in life; those who don't are more likely to fudge their expense accounts
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