Dealing with Deception at Work

When businesses value honesty and integrity, what do you do if someone is being dishonest?

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Everyone knows that dishonesty is wrong and should be discouraged in any profession. At least, that’s what the common rhetoric claims. Even so, deception is still a common practice, both in and out of the workplace. 

Sales managers and business owners often claim that they are committed to honesty and integrity, and that they would not hire a salesperson if they seemed to be dishonest. They say that in the long term, they are most successful when they earn the trust of their customers, so lies are counterproductive. But almost everyone else seems to believe that salespeople, marketers, and others who are in “salesy” occupations tend to stretch the truth to get the rest of us to spend our money.

So why the discrepancy? How is it that deception is still such a common practice when it is so widely condemned?

A recent study published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes seeks to answer that question. 

In “Deception as competence: The effect of occupational stereotypes on the perception and proliferation of deception,” authors Brian C. Gunia and Emma E. Levine challenge a lot of the previous research on deception. They found that, contrary to popular claims by people in the sales industry, many people do not actually disapprove of deception. In fact, “perceivers” (people who observe a deceptive act and recognize it as deception) might actually believe that the deception makes that person better at their job.

High In Sales Orientation (HISO) Occupations and Deception

According to popular stereotypes, some occupations are more prone to attract liars than others. For example, many people believe that salespeople, marketers, and investment bankers are likely to use dishonest tactics in their jobs. Gunia and Levine call these occupations “High in Sales Orientation” or HISO. 

The paper explains that there are two prototypical approaches to selling: sales orientation (SO), which focuses on the salesperson’s needs, and customer orientation (CO), which focuses on the customer’s needs. Salespeople with a CO focus would work toward helping their customers satisfy their own needs, thus building a long term relationship and hopefully improving business in the long run. However, that approach can reduce the likelihood of a short-term sale. 

On the flipside, salespeople with an SO focus often use high-pressure–and often dishonest–tactics to make a short-term sale. 

In their research, Gunia and Levine found that when perceivers read about an employee who did something dishonest, the perceivers were more likely to approve of the dishonesty if that employee worked in a HISO job. In fact, the perceivers were more likely to say that a dishonest employee would be more successful at their HISO job, even when the dishonest act was unrelated to sales. For example, perceivers read about a fictional worker named Julie who lied on her expense reimbursement form in order to get more money. They were more likely to say that Julie would be successful in her career when they thought she was a salesperson than when they thought she was a nonprofit manager. 

Additionally, study participants read about applicants for a job who had done something dishonest. When given the opportunity to decide whether or not the applicant should be hired, study participants were more likely to hire the dishonest candidate if the job was HISO rather than a non-sales related job. 

What Do Sales Managers Think About Dishonesty?

As we mentioned above, the popular rhetoric about lying in sales is that companies value honesty. Yet almost every consumer can recall at least one instance in which a salesperson told them an obvious lie in order to get their business.

To investigate this discrepancy, we checked in with a few leaders in the sales industry.

Andrew Weinberger is the founder of Property Club, Inc, a real estate startup in New York City. He is proud to operate a company that provides a transparent, better experience for his customers, but he recognizes that lying is common elsewhere in the real estate industry.

“The vast majority of salespeople, especially top producers, will use deceptive tactics to take advantage of their clients,” says Mr. Weinberger. “This doesn’t necessarily mean that they will do bad work, but it’s generally a lot easier to use proven tactics to get a certain result over trying to educate the client, even if it’s in their best interest.”

Mr. Weinberger goes on to explain that new agents are trained to lie to their clients. The top lesson is that they can promise sellers “pie-in-the-sky” pricing in order to get the client to sign an exclusive, even if the realtor knows that price will be impossible to get. Later, the realtor will adjust the client’s expectations down to a reasonable price.

The deception in the industry isn’t limited to the salesperson-client relationship, according to Chris Castanes, an award winning insurance agent, speaker and author of You’re Going To Be Great At This!

In his book, Mr. Castanes explains that sales recruiters often lie to their recruits, especially in those companies where compensation is 100% commission. He tells us, “My first job out of college was with an insurance company and the hiring manager was dishonest throughout the process, from telling me that I’d never be more than 30 minutes from home (some evenings I’d have a 2 hour drive back to my apartment) to promising leads that never came.” 

Mr. Castanes continues, “Unfortunately, this practice is common throughout the insurance industry. The average persistency is less than 10%, which translates to hiring 100 people and retaining less than 10 of them after 3 years.”

Does Lying Make a Salesperson More Successful?

Mr. Weinberger says that it is not necessary to lie to be successful in sales. In fact, the less skilled salespeople are often the least honest. But that’s because they don’t have as much value to offer their clients, so they rely on deceptive tactics to get business.

Marilyn Heywood Paige, the Vice President of Marketing at Inciting Marketing in Broomfield, Colorado, says that dishonesty won’t get a salesperson very far. 

“Not only is it unnecessary to lie in sales and marketing to be successful, but it is also highly unintelligent to do so,” says Ms. Paige. “Lying may get you a short term win, but there are no secrets now. Between consumer review sites, social media, and good old fashioned word of mouth, lying will eventually bite you in the butt.” 

Ms. Paige emphasizes the customer-oriented approach to sales. “The other critical thing the Internet has done is put a premium on authentic, honest communication. Consumers are so savvy now, they can smell a lie and they will pay more attention to and ante up more dollars for honesty.” 

How to Improve Honesty in Sales

So what is the “way forward”? Should companies focus on hiring honest salespeople? Of all the experts we interviewed, none said they’d hire a dishonest salesperson in their own companies. 

Mr. Weinberger explains that his company relies on a more customer-oriented model, and a deceptive employee is the opposite of what he’s looking for. “I would avoid hiring someone I considered deceptive as I wouldn’t trust them to represent the company well, and reputation is everything.”

Ms. Paige agrees. “I would run from hiring a person for my agency who I perceive as dishonest. Every employee holds my reputation in their hands. It is a sacred thing. If there is even a whiff of dishonesty in the ranks, that person is fired. Because of those lingering perceptions of marketing and advertising folks being deceptive, we have to be scrupulously honest at all times in my company. It is just how we do business.”

“In my agency, I insist that my agents are transparent and disclose as much as possible,” says Mr. Castanes. “Years ago I had a manager who told me that people hire people like themselves. It’s true. The managers who try to be upfront and honest tend to have the same kind of people around them and working for them. And it goes both ways.”

But it’s not as simple as looking for honest salespeople according to study author Brian Gunia. “The effects documented in our research appear to arise from deep-seated psychological assumptions, so it may not be realistic to simply encourage the hiring of more honest people,” says Dr. Gunia. “However, we would encourage the leaders of HISO occupations (and those tasked with hiring employees into them) to emphasize the customer-oriented aspects of the job more than the high-pressure selling aspects of the job.”

One answer may be for companies to employ a different pay structure with salespeople. When a salesperson needs an immediate sale in order to pay their mortgage, they may feel more pressure to lie. Businesses who want honest employees should consider rewarding employees for serving their clients well instead.

“In an ideal world, we’d see a model that isn’t commission based as that would eliminate the conflicts of interest,” says Mr. Weinberger. “For example, if agents were hired based simply on their merits and not the prices they promised, and [if they were] paid for professional services rendered, sellers would benefit greatly.”

Is it time for an industry overhaul? Many sales managers now recognize that the old tactics of inflated promises and deceptive product claims are not effective in the long term. Businesses are often more successful in the long term when they focus on improving their customers’ lives with solutions to their real needs. 

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