The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on workplace deceptions.
I work at a small technology company that services small-business owners. My boss, who is the founder and owner of the company, often speaks directly to customers and potential customers on the phone. It could be a sales call; it could be to check in on an existing customer account to provide support; or various other reasons. She does not say her real name or title at the company, however. Instead, she uses a fake name and title that she invented. I think the reason is that she wants to project an image of the company that is larger than it really is and does not want the customer to know that they are speaking directly to the founder.
She also does this in an open space where other employees can hear her, and I worry it may be setting a bad example.
Is this OK? I’m thinking about whether to tell her that she has to use her real name when talking to customers on the phone? Name Withheld
This form of imposture has a pedigree — or a past, anyway. In “The Devil and Miss Jones,” the 1941 film, a business tycoon goes undercover in order to root out the union agitators on his payroll. In the long-running CBS series “Undercover Boss,” high-level executives have a more benign motive: The conceit is that they want to see how the workplace really operates and get in touch with employee concerns. Apparently, bosses just need to be bossed in order to find their soul. The social contradictions of capitalism: solved!
In the offscreen world, Under Armour’s former chief executive Kevin Plank used to talk about how he had two business cards when he was starting his sports-apparel business. One identified him as the company’s president; another as a mere sales manager. Visiting prospective buyers, he wanted to make out that the company was bigger than it was — and that some honcho in the home office was stopping him from offering the lower price a vendor might be asking for. In the company’s glory days, people heard about the two cards and applauded an entrepreneur’s scrappy ingenuity. My hunch is that the tale ceased to get much of an airing after a federal inquiry was announced into Under Armour’s possible accounting irregularities.
So how sketchy is your boss’s behavior? Is it worse than when Rahul at your bank’s Bengaluru call center identifies himself to you as Randy? In my view, it is. Rahul has been instructed to do so in order to make American callers more comfortable and maybe disguise the fact that the call center has been offshored to somewhere far, far away. (He has probably also received training in “accent neutralization.”) But that’s surely a venial sin, especially if you think of it as a response to the prejudices of some of the people he’s responding to. The main point of the deception isn’t to mislead callers about his name. It’s to deflect them from thinking about where he is. And where he is will seldom be relevant to the subject of the call.
Your boss, by contrast, is concealing things that might be of legitimate interest to callers — namely, that they’re talking to the boss and that she’s not running a very big operation. Here’s a test: How much would it matter to the people on the other end of the line if they found out what was happening? With Rahul a.k.a. Randy, they’re mostly not going to mind. With your company, on the other hand, they might feel some unease. Can you rely on someone who tries to mislead you about who she is? The deception she’s perpetrating on some of her customers, though minor in the scheme of things, is still wrong.
As for the example it sets for your colleagues? She’s the kind of person, they’ll already have inferred, who thinks that at least some small acts of misrepresentation are OK if it suits her. Now, would she also pretend that, say, a piece of software was further along in the development process than it really was? Or produce a bogus excuse for why a deadline was missed?
Maybe, maybe not. You and your co-workers have lots more evidence about what kind of person she is, and you might have reason to think she’s basically honest, with this one exception. Honesty has many different dimensions; a body of research in social psychology suggests that we go wrong when we imagine it to be a “global character trait.” The scrupulous accountant might be lying to his wife about his philandering; the student who cheats on exams may be utterly upfront with his friends; and so on.
And I’ll give your boss one thing. The very fact that you’re thinking about telling her to change her ways says something positive about the workplace that she has created. It may not be ruled by absolute honesty, but — in ways not to be taken for granted — it plainly isn’t ruled by fear either.
More than a year ago, I moved 300 miles from home to care for my elderly, bedbound father until his death. (My mother predeceased him.) I have handled my parents’ finances, legal and medical needs and managed their homes since my father started having health problems three years ago. The past year was an incredibly difficult time. I did not see my husband or my two college-age children for much of the last year because Covid made visits too risky. One of my sisters has not even visited my parents for 15 years. My other sister shared some of the responsibility and also came to live with him last summer while her salon was closed, but, during his six final months, she canceled visits many times and came to see him for one five-day stay. The other sister made many excuses and then stopped speaking to me. I am so angry at them for failing to visit him, in his confusion and sadness, and for leaving me alone for six months to watch him die.
Here’s my dilemma: When his lawyer asked me to check accounts for beneficiaries, I discovered that all the accounts are divided equally among the three of us — except for one, which lists only me as the primary beneficiary. This account probably amounts to one third of the estate, excluding the real estate. It’s possible he set this account up a long time ago, and because I’m the oldest, it may have just been an oversight that he didn’t change it to all three of us. If my sisters had helped out, I wouldn’t hesitate to split this account with them. But my anger screams, “Karma!” None of us are struggling financially. Am I being unethical if I don’t share the account with them? Name Withheld
What really matters here isn’t what you want or what your sisters want. It’s what your father would have wanted. If you’re sure that he would have wanted an equal division, you should aim for that. If you’re sure that he would have been happy to see you take your full allotment, I see no problem in accepting it. But if you don’t know what he would have wanted? Then you’re also entitled to keep this sum, given that you took on the onus of care. Bear in mind, however, that the red mist of anger has a peculiar way of magnifying the past while blotting out the future. You might take time to consider how what you do today will affect your sororal relationships five or 10 years from now. Finally, because this isn’t money you need, you might take the opportunity to do some philanthropy in your father’s memory. Though you might want to keep some of the money for lawyer’s fees in case your siblings sue.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)