There’s a public service announcement I hear on the radio from time to time.  It’s sponsored by some U.S. government agency and is designed to help parents encourage their kids to eat several servings of vegetables every day.  The techniques involve, and I’m not quoting accurately, “Tell them that eating broccoli will help them hit home runs” or, “eating your peas will help you become an astronaut.”  In short, the advice is to motivate our kids by fibbing a bit about what a serving of vegetables can really do.

I get it, parenting is tough, and a little “white lie” now and then to motivate kids to do something probably isn’t the end of the moral world.  However, the ad did get me thinking about truth telling and the critical importance it has in developing a culture of trust. It also reminded me that even those of us who sometimes think we never lie, often forget how easy it is to bend the truth when we think it suits some greater good, like getting our kids to eat their vegetables.

When thinking about what makes a strong business ethics culture, telling the truth is probably the single most important ethical value.  It is true equally at every single level of the company – from the helper on a rear loader to the Chairman of the Board.  In order to work effectively we must be able to trust what a colleague or boss tells us.  Much of the work we do in the field is dangerous and we have to be able to rely on what others have told us to do it safely.  Likewise, much of the work we do behind desks is done for regulators, shareholders and customers.  They too deserve the truth from us at all times or we lose their trust and ultimately their business (customers) or the right to do business (regulators). 

We hear the term “transparency” often today to describe how business should be run to earn the trust of all its stakeholders.  This means open and truthful discussions of tough issues.  It is something every company should strive for However, it is important for all of us to remember that in the context of a public company like WM, there are limits to full transparency placed on the company by financial regulators.  There may be occasions where management knows something “might” happen, or is likely to happen, but cannot selectively disclose it to employees without disclosing it to the entire investing community. 

So back to vegetables …  at work there are very few “greater goods” which justify not being truthful.  It is the “hard” truths that are most tempting to “bend,” like when we make a mistake, or when we have to tell someone they need to improve.  As adults we have to face these truths head on and deal with them honestly and appropriately. 

Gotta go eat my spinach – my mom told me it would make me a good writer.