The right and wrong way to lie in business, Part 2

In the previous essay, I opened an honest discussion of the ethics and practice of lying in business. I argued that it is better to tell one large-enough lie than a hundred small lies, and that the best lies are those to establish social equality in spite of an existing trust-sparse environment. That is, you lie to flip one’s bozo bit to the “off” position, but not to go any further and certainly not in an attempt to establish superiority over the other party. I also argued that one should aim to lie harmlessly. People who spread malicious gossip ruin themselves as much as their targets. They become, figuratively and literally, bad news. Now I’ll cover a third principle of lying in business: own the lie.

3. Owning the lie.

Lies, even ethical ones, can be corrosive to relationships. People have a visceral aversion to being lied to. When you lie to someone, you’re making the statement that you don’t believe the person can be trusted with the truth. In reality, most people can’t be trusted with the truth. The truth is too complex, they’ll only understand it partially, and often conclude against you based not only the truth but on their own superficial, limiting prejudices. However, it’s not socially acceptable to tell people that you can’t trust them with the truth. You can’t just say, “I’ve inflated my job titles because we barely know each other, and I’m afraid that you’ll write me off if you know that I was only Director, not a VP”. This means that you never want to be caught lying to someone. It’s less damaging if you tell the lie to a group that they happen to be a part of.

Lying to someone is corrosive because people take it personally. This means that, when you decide to lie, you have to be comfortable telling the lie to everyone. Moreover, you have to act, going forward, as if the lie were true. There’s a saying in creative writing, most often applied to poets, that the bad ones borrow and the good ones steal. Incompetent people lack the originality to deviate from a found gem, so they replicate it in a way that is overly literal and clumsy. The adept creators, on the other hand, know that very little in the world is entirely original, so they willingly take ideas from disparate sources and merge them in a way that is uniquely theirs. A similar rule applies to lying in business: steal, don’t borrow. If you’re going to lie about something, you must be prepared to continue lying about it until the end of time. People are unable to detect truth in others, so they fixate on consistency (which is hypocritical, because human beings are deeply inconsistent) instead. The result of this is that, for any lie you intend to tell, you must make sure it is consistent with existing written facts, and live in a way that continues to be consistent with it.

Things that are inconsistent put people ill-at-ease. For example, Wall Street has a negative reputation among the public and, while some of that’s earned, much of it’s not. People hold a negative view of markets in general, and a large part of that is that they appear inconsistent. The “fair value” of a corporation can rise or drop by a billion dollars in a day for no apparent reason. (More accurately, there is a trade-off between availability, efficiency, consistency at a given time, and consistency across time. Markets favor the first three and abandon the fourth.) To people who want everything to be “fairly” priced, it seems like something shady is going on. How can it be that the “fair value” of something changes so erratically? In reality, nothing shady is (at most times) going on; it’s just that the platonic “fair value” doesn’t exist. To the general public, however, this feels like inconsistency, and hence there are complaints about “price gouging” when market forces drive the price of gas to $4 per gallon.

Of course, there are bad things that happen on markets. There are manipulators, dishonest schemes, and moral hazards pertaining to risk (especially when derivatives are used) all over the place. Markets also do a great job of local optimization (what is the best price for butter?) but fail at achieving equally important global targets, such as avoidance of poverty and social breakdown, enforcement of human rights, protection of the environment, and universal healthcare. Much that happens on Wall Street deserves to be despised, and I don’t intend to claim otherwise, and much of the American corporate system is far from a free market anyway. I simply purport that the visceral dislike humans have (and have had, for centuries) for market mechanics has little to do with the actual abuses, and is more a result of an overreaction to their obvious (but not morally objectionable, since supply and demand do change, sometimes rapidly) inconsistency. Something that is constantly changing (such as a claimed “fair price”) is distrusted. That applies to human beings as well. An intelligent person changes his views when they discover new information, or just because they think about a problem in a different way, but a politician whose ideology evolves is called a “flip-flopper”.

So what does it mean to own a lie? Many people, when they tell a lie for the first time, get petty enjoyment out of it. “I got away with it!” Don’t fall for that petty “rush”. It’s actually really easy to get away with most lies. That’s why the consequences for being caught are often so disproportionate to the offense. Many companies, at least by their outward claims, hold a zero-tolerance policy toward lies on resumes because, in fact, 95 percent of those lies are never caught, requiring the penalty for those who are caught to be at least 20 times the possible gain. (Moreover, in that other 5 percent, those are usually people who are going to be fired anyway, and put under re-investigation because the company wishes to renege on a contractual executive severance, or to somehow extort the caught liar.) Getting away with a lie is actually the typical, default, outcome. It shouldn’t be celebrated. One definitely shouldn’t take in the petty thrill of “getting one over” on someone. Some people get addicted to that thrill and become the purveyors of small or harmful lies: the blowhards and gossips. That’s useless, because it’s so easy to get away with lies.

When you decide to lie, to improve your career or reputation, you’re not “getting one over” on anyone. You’re taking a non-truth and making it true. You will forever act as if it were true. The people you’ve lied to haven’t been defeated or bested. You’ve had no win against them. You changed the truth independent of them. You, then, told that truth to them. You related to them as equals, not as if they were gullible inferiors.

If the above sounds vaguely psychotic, it’s not my intent. Yes, if you’re going to use a lie, you must own it. For example, if your lie is that a previous employer placed you in its high-potential program, you have to stop complaining about that company and how unfair the place was. It’s best to convince yourself that the lie was true, because it has become the new truth. Now, if one began owning delusions, one might tend toward (if not psychosis) pathological narcissism. That’s clearly not good. Instead, I would argue that one should only tell ownable lies. That restricts the scope of what one can lie about, which is generally a good thing. Lying is somewhat of a surgical art. You have to change one aspect of “the working truth” without creating inconsistencies or having too many side effects on unrelated “working truths”. It’s far from easy to do it right.

I initially said to “lie big”, and I stand by that. By “big” I mean effectively and tactically. The social costs of lying (even if not caught) are severe enough that one should not lie without an agenda. A hundred small lies become impossible to keep up. That one should usually lie harmlessly, and restrict oneself to ownable lies, push downward on the scope of reasonable lies and keep a person from lying too big. Some people lie about the college they attended. That’s a terrible idea. Faking a four-year experience, to one who has actually had it, is pretty much impossible. If the lie can’t be owned, then don’t tell it.

What is the truth? How can it be “modified”?

The concept of truth is much more complicated than people like to admit. “It is 39 degrees in New York City.” Is that a true statement? As of 8:16 am on April 6, 2014, it is objectively true (at least, according to The Weather Channel). At other times, it will be false. There is nothing about New York that makes it inherently 39 degrees. That’s a property of it at a given time, and the world on April 7 will be nearly indistinguishable (apart from trusted written record) from one in which New York’s temperature was a different number. “In Inception, Cobb dreamt the entire thing.” Is that true? People debate it, and while I’d rather not spoil the movie, I think the evidence points a certain way on that. But is it a fact? No, it’s a conclusion one draws from presented fiction. There’s a book (I won’t name it, because that would spoil it) where the titular character discovers that she’s a character in a book, written for a woman (call her Helen) who’s “real”. Of course, Helen’s also a character in a book, so “Helen is real” is not a truthful statement about reality about intent. The author intends her to be real within a universe that is fictional. Ah! But can anyone other than the author speak to intent? And couldn’t that author truthfully (or, at least, consistently) represent his intent in myriad ways?

You should never lie in a way that contradicts an objective fact. This should be obvious. Don’t cook the books; you will probably get caught. The good news, for those who need to lie, is that most human behavior and judgment (especially in business) is based on pseudofacts, which are much more manipulable. “Erica is good at her job.” “Stanley was formally recognized as a high-potential hire.” “Andrea does not get along well with the team.” “Jason was only promoted because he’s the boss’s favorite; Jason must have something on him.” All of those sound like factual statements, but are completely subjective.

Great minds discuss ideas, middling minds discuss events, and base minds discuss people. (Most minds are base, and great minds are base some of the time.) Ideas stand alone on their own merit and can be debated from first principles. The extreme of this is mathematics, where things are objectively true (within a specific formal system) or not. Even “controversies” within mathematics (e.g. the Axiom of Choice) pertain not to whether the axiom is valid mathematics (there is a valid mathematics with Choice, and a valid one without it) but to the subjective question of which of these equally valid mathematical frameworks is more useful and deserves more study. As for events, those stand in for facts in a more parochial but also more applicable way. “2 plus 2 is 4″ is a factual theorem that is always true, everyhwere. “The temperature in New York at 8:16 am was 39 degrees” is an event, or a piece of data, relevant to one place and point in time. We can reason about why the seasons exist, in the realm of ideas, and such explorations have informed humanity’s understanding of the solar system and, eventually, the cosmos; but if we want to know what to wear for a trip, we’re better off with empirical data (events) pertaining to the weather we can actually expect. Further down the line, we have the business world, still driven by emotion far more than by data. There, judgment of people (the ultimate bike shed) outweighs anything else, and one should do whatever is necessary (lie, intimidate, cajole, bribe) to make sure the relevant parties come down on the right side.

In the realm of ideas, a lie is an objective falsehood like “2 plus 2 is 5″. One should assume that those will always blow up, making the liar appear foolish. However, in the realm of events, lies can be inserted relatively easily. “At 8:16 am on April 6, 2014; the temperature in New York was 60 degrees.” That’s false, but it could conceivably be true. New York, in April, has cold days and warm days. Nothing contradicts it (although there are other, more reliable, readings that would call it into doubt, since New York isn’t known for microclimates). Even with that written record, it’s theoretically possible (if unlikely) that one observation point recorded a valid 60-degree reading while the rest were around 39. All that said, the realm of events has got to remain mostly truthful. Let’s say that the world of mathematics is 100% truthful. Events that are recorded as true in various databases (climate, physics experiments, business) are probably true 99.9999% of the time. Occasionally, there’ll be a ridiculous reading. When it comes to people, especially in business, it’s mostly non-truth that we call “reputation”: social-status-biased judgments that, while full of exaggeration and rumor, are used because they’re the best proxy we have. Not quite lies, not quite truth. Bullshit would be a good technical term. Most of the information we use to judge other people in the business world is bullshit: non-verifiable, non-truthful non-lies. “Sam left because he couldn’t hack it.” “Teresa wasn’t a team player.” “Bill was the obvious leader of the group.” “Mark only wanted to work on the fun stuff.” These statements are utterly subjective, but it’s their subjectivity (and their bullshittiness) that makes them so powerful. People are viscerally drawn to those of high status. Merit is something we invent because we want to believe we’re more than animals, and that our decisions are made from more of a high-minded place than they actually (for most people) are. Status is what humans judge each other by, and it’s almost all bullshit. Sam (above) left because his lack of pedigree had his superiors dropping low-end grunt work on him. Teresa’s high intelligence intimidated those around her and she was saddled with the “not a team player” epithet. Bill claims he was the leader of the group, and the rest were too meek to oppose him. Mark was an objective high performer but disliked for his political views, and “only wanted to work on the fun stuff” was the only charge that could stick, in the effort to damage his reputation. All of that stuff, above, is judgment of people (complex organisms, simplified with labels like “not a team player” or “high performer”) given false objectivity. One lies because one needs to fight it, and to “correct” unfavorable judgments of oneself.

False events and the new truth

To lie effectively, one has to operate in the realm of events, which is the world of middling (and practical) minds. In the realm of ideas, it is hard to lie, because bad ideas usually end in some sort of contradiction or failure. The judgment of people can’t be addressed directly, because it’s not socially acceptable to discuss, directly, what people are actually trying to figure out. Let’s say that you’re under attack. I’ll use, again, the case of a negative reference when seeking a job. Your ex-boss is saying that you were a poor performer and that he wouldn’t hire you again. What is the best counterattack?

  • A. “Well, he’s a jackass.”
  • B. “That’s because he’s a child molester.” (Assuming that’s a lie.)
  • C. “You know, that’s funny, because three months after I left, he called me begging to re-join his team. He even offered me a 20% raise.” (Assuming that’s a lie.)
  • D. “He never liked me, because I’m a Red Sox fan and he’s a Yankees fan.” (Assuming that’s a lie.)

The answer is, of course, C. But why is it C? Let’s eliminate the other three. Answer D violates “lie big”. It’s a small lie and it’s just not believable. There might be a few people who are so vested in sports fandom that they’d ruin someone’s life over it, but they’re rare and typically don’t acquire organizational credibility such as a management position. It’s a small lie. When you use a small lie as “the explanation” for something negative in your past, you lose credibility, because even if you may not have deserved the hit against you, you’re showing a lack of insight into what happened. So strike D, that’s a no-go. Answer B violates “lie harmlessly”. It’s understandable that one would be angry when facing a negative reference, and wish to ruin that person’s reputation and life. That might be a worthy project in its own right. However, the practical need at the moment is to recover from the accusation of poor work performance, not to damage the one making the claim. “He’s a child molester” doesn’t answer the question. It raises more questions. (How do you know? Why haven’t you reported him?  It’s too big of a lie, way too harmful, and doesn’t help you. His being a pervert doesn’t invalidate his accusation against you.

We’ve stricken the two obvious bad answers. What about Answer A, which is arguably the only truthful answer (non-jackasses don’t ruin their ex-subordinates’ careers, so I can call A “truthful” from first principles) among the four? Aside from the general prohibition against “bad-mouthing” ex-employers– that’s a prohibition that might not apply here (negative references put you squarely into atypical territory, and when you have to choose between your reputation and an ex-employers you always favor yours)– why does “he’s a jackass” fail you? You’re addressing judgment of people directly– too directly, in fact. That’s not socially acceptable, because gossip is so low-minded. You have to make it look like you’re discussing objective events. If you don’t have any, make some up.

Most of the judgment-of-people bullshit (to use the technical meaning of bullshit, which is a non-truthful non-lie, neither true nor false because the claim is of such low value that its truthfulness is undefined) can be subverted with the insertion of non-truthful events. Bad reference from an ex-boss? Repeat again: “three months later, he begged me to rejoin his team.” Bad performance review interfering with internal mobility? “I accidentally upstaged him in a meeting with his manager by having an idea that his boss really liked. He tried to take credit and, being loyal, I actually let him, but his boss still attributed it to me.” Fired from a previous job? “I left on amicable terms, and my manager has repeatedly said that the door’s still open.” Ex-boss said you’re “not a team player”? “Man, he told me not to work so hard because it was making the rest of the team insecure. I thought we were past that, but I guess not.” You can almost always recover from a smear, even when cloaked in false objectivity, by inserting non-truthful events (verbal conversations, with no record, are the best) into the stream. When you do so, you’re not “telling a lie”. You’re changing the truth. Those conversations, even if they never happened physically, now did happen. You make it a fact that your ex-boss begged you to rejoin his team, and your choice to remain with your new job (your professionalism) is actually why he’s smearing you. This makes the explanation for his smear against your performance much simpler than the complex array of things (typically, a months-long story that caused bad things to happen to a good person) that actually happened. It’s a mind-fuck, I won’t deny it. That’s why one shouldn’t lie often.

Ethics, past and future

I’ve put forward that there are good and bad liars. A “bad liar” could be the ineffective kind or the unethical kind. The ineffective ones are the blowhards. They may or may not get caught in specific lies, but they fail to achieve their desired effects. Seeking to elevate their social status through non-truth, they undermine their own credibility and become laughingstocks. Those who strive to achieve social superiority through lies usually end up that way. It’s much better to lie just enough to establish equality and basic credibility– that is, to overcome the prejudices that emerge in a trust-sparse system. Doing this requires that one’s lies simplify. The problem with blowhards is that they’re so in love with their own (exaggerated or outright made-up) stories that they litter the “claimed event stream” with complexity and lose credibility.

Let’s step away from the blowhards (really, they aren’t that interesting) and ask a higher-minded question. What differentiates the ethical liars from the unethical ones? This is a subjective matter (I’m sure not everyone will agree with my definition of ethical) but I think the crux of it is that ethical liars focus on fixing the past: making it simpler and cleaner so it goes down easier. They’re manicuring their own reputations and removing some hard-to-explain bad luck, but not trying to mislead anyone. On the other hand, fraudsters intend to deceive about the future. Con artists want their targets to believe in high-impact future events (specifically, financial returns) that simply aren’t going to happen. Ethical liars are making it easier for counterparties to make the right decision for both parties, and using non-truth to overcome the pernicious, lose-lose, inefficiency of a trust-sparse world. Often, simplifying non-truths about the past are necessary to overcome embarrassments that, trivial as they are, might disrupt the trust needed to build a future that is properly coherent and (paradoxically) more truthful than what would emerge if those non-truths weren’t there. Unethical liars, on the other hand, want their targets to make what are, for the target, wrong decisions. That is, I think, the fundamental difference. Ethical liars simplify the past to make the future truthful. Unethical ones want the future to contain even more untruth (specifically, untruth that benefits them).

It is bizarre that, in the judgment-of-people theatre of business, the best way to achieve truth is (sometimes) with a strategic lie. I don’t know how to resolve that dissonance. It’s probably connected to quite a few of the deeper philosophical questions of general human politics. That’d take at least another essay to explore.

Until then, go forth, beat the bad guys, and lie carefully.

Fundamental Subordinate Dishonesty

This essay has two parts. The first is about the ethics of lying in the context of a job search, whether on a resume or in an interview. The second half focuses on a massively common falsification that is not only common, but socially accepted: the Fundamental Subordinate Dishonesty.

I realize that this opinion is not without controversy, but I don’t find myself up-in-arms about most resume lies. In the professional world, that seems to be considered one of the worst things people can do, leading to immediate termination, even without any other context. In my opinion, much of this attitude is overblown, a high-horse position taken because, since there is so little in the way of actual ethics in the white-collar corporate world, the appearance of ethical “above-boardness” becomes critically important. 

Let me make myself clear on three things, however. First, I don’t lie on my resume. Why? I don’t need to, and the consequences of being caught are severe. There are annoyances in my career history, but nothing so damaging that I have to hide it. Second, I’m using “resume lie” as a shorthand for dishonesty that occurs in a job search, so lies on an interview would count. On that, it’s tactically a lot better to keep that resume factual and truthful and deliver whatever inflations you need to make verbally, if you can. Third, there are two categories of this type of lie, one of which I consider extremely unethical, and the other of which I don’t care about. Feigning competences that a person doesn’t have is charlatanry and a form of fraud. That can be extremely harmful. A person who lies about having a medical degree (a “quack” doctor) is hurting people, committing a dangerous fraud, and deserves to go to prison. There’s no question that charlatanry is unethical. It’s completely unacceptable. The other category of career inflation is what I call cosmetic inflation. When a person represents work experience honestly but inflates the title, or alters dates of employment by a couple months to cover an embarrassing gap, he’s not trying to get a job he can’t perform. He’s just inflating his own social status– in truth, mostly lying about performance reviews, which falls into the “who gives a fuck?” category as far as I am concerned– in order to bring his image in line with his capability.

On when such cosmetic inflations– fudging titles, knitting dates, representing termination as a voluntary resignation, and upgrading “performance-based” compensation to the top bracket– are advisable, I can’t say when they are and when not. I don’t do them, and I have no data. The downside is obvious– you can get just as fired for an ethical lie as an unethical one– and the upside is often unclear. Is someone really going to be treated better when he self-assigns the promotion from AVP to VP? I have no earthly idea. What’s obvious to me is that there’s nothing ethically wrong with this sort of thing. People aren’t faking capabilities they lack, with such falsehoods, but improving their stated political trajectories in the direction of what’s socially optimal. If it’s unethical to lie about social status and past political success, then the whole world is guilty.

Companies worry a lot about resume lies, and understandably so, because I imagine they’re common given the stakes. So, I asked myself: do they lose money to these? How much? This said, I’m focusing only on the cosmetic brand of lie: upgraded job titles and date-fudging, not actual fraud. I’m not talking about the objectively unethical and fraudulent lies (charlatanry) because (I would hope) only a very small percentage of the population is depraved enough to attempt them.

Perversely, I can actually see companies winning more than they lose from cosmetic inflations. Why? One of the major causes of corporate inefficiency is the lack of trust. Most people are stuck in junior roles below their level of ability (and, therefore, producing less value for the company than they otherwise could) because they aren’t trusted. They have the capability but not the credibility. The existence of outright fraud is obviously a part of this problem, even though psychopaths are often skilled at office politics and can easily win these cosmetic awards (such as job titles). Cosmetic dishonesty, perversely, might be the cure. It sounds ridiculous that I would be advising outright (if harmless) lying as a remedy to a trust problem (although I think this is an absurdly common social behavior) so let me give a concrete example. Bob is a 34-year-old banker who was an Associate for 5 years, and then laid off when his bank hit a rough patch. In his job search, he represents his work experience, and strengths and weaknesses, honestly but upgrades his political success by claiming to be a VP (in banking, “VP” is a middling rank, not an executive) who is still with the firm in good standing, and simply looking for new challenges. He gets another job, and performs well there. How much damage does he do? He might receive $20,000 more in salary from his next employer on account of his falsification. Big deal: if he’s actually incompetent, they can fire him and cut their losses. Chances are, he’ll deliver over $300,000 of additional value to his new employer on account of being trusted to perform better work. He is lying to his future employer, and making a huge return on investment for them.

What Bob is actually correcting is a cognitive flaw of humans whereby mediocrity in past social status is conflated with ethical depravity. This made sense in evolutionary times, because people (at least, men) of low social status had to subvert the existing order, often in violent ways, in order to reproduce. The alpha ape needed to watch out for the gammas, who might attempt to compensate for their lack of physical superiority by trickery, thereby killing him. It’s less relevant in the modern time, when there is a nonviolent and socially positive solution to low social status: move somewhere else and reinvent yourself. If anything, I think people who do this are more likely to be ethical. Rather than do whatever it takes (read: cheat) to win where they are, they walk away and find another game.

For an aside, most of these cosmetic lies aren’t dishonesty so much as insubordination. When someone upgrades his title to reflect a promotion that he was passed over for, is he lying? One could argue so, but one could equally convincingly argue that he’s merely de-legitimizing the managerial authorities that delivered a negative assessment of him. They called him a loser and he’s saying, “No, I’m not”. Most job titles don’t reflect objective accomplishment but political success in any case, and who’s to say that the inflated title isn’t a more accurate reflection of who he is? He’s clearly showing a lack of subordination to his ex-managers, but why shouldn’t he? What he is really doing by inflating his title is counterfeiting a social currency that he believes to be illegitimate anyway. Very little harm is done.

So what is the costliest of the cosmetic lies? Are there any that lose money for employers? The answer I’ve come to is that there is one, but it’s (a) not a traditional resume lie, and (b) so common that it is not conventionally considered unethical: the Fundamental Subordinate Dishonesty.

Subordinate dishonesty is a term I use for the often omissive deceptions that people have to use in order to survive a subordinate role in an organizational hierarchy. These aren’t ethical faults, because they’re often adaptations required for survival. For example, I learned early in my career that it is never acceptable to voice the opinion that your assigned project will not pan out, even if that is obviously true. If I hold that opinion, I keep it to myself. Even if true, “This project is never going to work, and here’s why” is a one-way ticket to Firedville. The basic, underlying principle of subordinate dishonesty is “never bear bad news“. You have to know your boss extremely well, and usually this requires a pre-existing friendly relationship, before you can trust him enough to associate your face with negative news.

There is one variety of subordinate dishonesty that is especially common, and I’ve given it the name above: the Fundamental Subordinate Dishonesty. This is when a person represents himself as being happy to take a subordinate role. This is very common on job interviews. Most people wait too long to look for jobs, and are semi-desperate by the time they “officially” hit the market. By this point, they exaggerate their willingness to take on junior, low-impact roles or positions far outside of their desired specialty. They’re just happy “to be a part of something great”. This isn’t an intentional dishonesty, so much as a self-deception repeated often, because it’s socially attractive. The problem is that it doesn’t last. After a few months in a new job, the “honeymoon period” ends and people will no longer be happy in a role where their credibility is below their capability. However, when people are either desperate or (more commonly) think they are, they will frequently overestimate and, thereby, overrepresent their willingness to fill such a role “as long as it’s needed of me” in order to “just close” an offer. But once they are settled in and no longer in fear of unemployment, they become agitated in a way that they didn’t predict (at the time, they were just happy to get out of the mess they were in) but that should have been predictable.

If I’m looking for a big-ticket loss in terms of resume lies, I don’t think inflated titles or padded dates do much damage. At their ethical worst, they’re a zero-sum game that is to the disadvantage of truthful nonparticipants, like me. (I have no ethical problem with cosmetic inflation. My decision not to take part is strategic. My career history is above-average so I gain little and risk too much.) Being in that category, I’m OK with this “loss”, because the companies where I might not get hired are those that value things (like past job titles) that I find to be imbecilic noise. It’s better, for the world, for that company to hire an (ethical) liar and trust him so he can get his job done than for it to hire me and trust me less because my (truthfully represented) social signals are not as strong. This “victimless” crime that the liar is committing doesn’t bother me much.

Instead, the trillion-dollar killer is the Fundamental Subordinate Dishonesty. It creates massive unhappiness and turnover.

For all this, I don’t want to make it sound like employees are dirty and companies are clean on this one, because that’s not true. In fact, employers have a history of over-representing the autonomy associated with a position and the challenge of the work just as brazenly as job applicants overrepresent their will to subordinate. Sometimes this is unintentional, and sometimes it’s overt. In general, I’d say that it’s aspirational. A manager’s sense of time is distorted by the need to deal with multiple concurrent and often conflicting story lines, which is why an employee who asks for more interesting work at the 4-month mark is doing so “way too soon”. So managers often present a job role, in terms of authority and creativity, based on where the employee “should be” after a “short time” (read: 2 years on busy-work that’s mostly evaluative because it’s not critical to the business) if that employee “proves himself” (read: doesn’t piss anyone off). The problem is that very few people are willing to be outright bored for two whole years. This begins as benign aspirational hiring, but grows into something else once a company goes into full-on recruiting mode. I’ve seen companies (mostly, crappy startups) that literally cannot function because over 80 percent of their people were promised leadership roles and nobody is willing to follow.

This is also why, as I’ve become older, I advise people to pay a high degree of attention to salary in comparing job offers. I used to say that it was worth it to take a low-salary job for “interesting work”. I’m not so sure anymore. If you’re going to be a founder of a startup, with real (5% or more) equity and standing in the business, then this may be an exception. Otherwise, you’re often better off looking at the hard number to size up what the company really thinks of you, unless you have solid data. Don’t trust intangibles on a “just-said” basis, because employers lie about those all the fucking time. This is the mirror image of the Fundamental Subordinate Dishonesty. The employer represents a low-level position within the hierarchy as being better than it actually is, and the employee represents herself as being content with a lower level of autonomy that she’ll actually accept. Eventually, both sides find themselves dissatisfied with the relationship because the other party “should be” picking up on their real desires. It should be no wonder that this commonly leads to a theatrical crash.

So what is the solution? I think the answer is many-fold. First of all, what actually makes people happy at work isn’t the salary. Compensation makes people happy outside of work. When at work, it’s social status. People put an optimistic spin on this in accord with what’s socially acceptable, but the reality is that people don’t like jobs where they can’t get anything done, and it’s impossible to have real achievements in a position of low status. So an organizational hierarchy that leaves most people with low status is going to make a lot of people unhappy. This was not a major issue with traditional industrial work, where unhappy workers were only 20 or 40 percent less productive than happy ones, but for modern technological work, that difference is at least an order of magnitude. Hierarchical companies are losing their ability to perform at the highest levels.

I see no other conclusion than the fact that corporate hierarchy is obsolete and increasingly incapable of solving modern technical problems. The subordination on which it relies is fundamentally dishonest, because no one is content to be held artificially at such a low level of impact. People who will follow orders in the context of a symbiotic mentor/protege relationship that advances their careers, for sure. They will also follow another’s lead on a specific project when they believe that other person has a better grasp of the problem than they, themselves, do. What they’re not willing to do anymore is be truly subordinate: to follow rank because it is rank, and to let their own long-term career goals take a backseat to professed organizational needs. Why? Because when you accept this, you reduce your long-term career prospects, and are effectively paying to keep your own job. That era is finished. Yet social protocols remain and require a certain dishonest signaling about the willingness to subordinate, leading to failed communication, overblown expectations and festering unhappiness. 

If there’s a job search lie that’s a billion- or trillion-dollar killer, I would say that the Fundamental Subordinate Dishonesty is it.

“Fail fast” is not an excuse for being a moron, a flake, or a scumbag.

I wrote before on technology’s ethical crisis, a behavioral devolution that’s left me rather disgusted with the society and culture of venture-funded technology startups, also known as “VC-istan”. There are a lot of problems with the venture-funded technology industry, and I only covered a few of them in that post. Barely addressed was that so much of what we do is socially worthless bubble bullshit, like Zynga– which, in my mind, only proves that a company can be taken seriously even when its name sounds like 4th-grade anatomical slang. Most of us in venture-funded technology are merely bankers, except for the distinction that we buy and sell internet ads instead of securities. This world of crappy imitations and bad ideas exists because there’s a class of entrepreneurs (who are well-liked by venture capitalists) who’ve become convinced that “the idea doesn’t matter”. That’s ridiculous! It’s good to pivot, and sometimes one has to change or abandon an idea to survive, but ideas and purposes do matter. When this fast-and-loose attitude is taken toward ideas, the result is that stupid ideas get lots of funding. That’s unpleasant to look at, but it doesn’t have the moral weight of some of VC-istan’s deeper problems, which I’ve already addressed. To pore into those, I think we have to look at a two-word good idea taken too far, and in horribly wrong directions: fail fast.

As a systems engineering term, “fail-fast” is the principle that a failing component should report failure, and stop operation, immediately, rather than attempting to continue in spite of its malfunction. The diametric opposite of this is “silent failure”, which is almost always undesirable. In software engineering, it’s generally understood that an average runtime bug is 10 times as costly as one found in the compilation process, and that a “do-the-wrong-thing” silent bug can be 10 to 1000 times more costly than one that throws a visible error at runtime. In software engineering, redundant systems are usually preferable because components can fail (and they will, for causes ranging from programming errors to hardware defects to data corruption caused by cosmic rays) without bringing the whole system down and, in these, for dysfunctional components to halt fast is usually a desirable behavior.

In the systems case, it’s important to look at what “fail” and “fast” mean. Fail means to stop operation once there is a detected possibility of erroneous behavior. Fast means to report the failure as soon as possible. Whether it’s a bug in software or a defect in a manufacturing process, it’s always astronomically cheaper to fix it earlier rather than later. The idea isn’t to glorify failure. It’s an acknowledgment that failure happens, and it’s a strategy for addressing it. Fail fast doesn’t mean “make things unreliable”. It means “be prepared for unexpected wrongness, and ready to fix it immediately”.

In VC-istan, “fail fast” is an attitude taken toward business, in which failure becomes almost a badge of honor. I believe this is intended as an antidote for the far more typical and pernicious attitude toward business failure, which is to personalize and stigmatize it, as seen in “middle America” and most of Europe. I’ll agree that I prefer the fail-fast attitude over the paralyzing risk aversion of most of the world. The reason Silicon Valley is able to generate technological innovation at a rate faster than any other place is this lack of stigma against good-faith failure. On the other hand, I find the cavalier attitude toward failure to often veer into frank irresponsibility, and that’s what I want to address.

The typical VC startup founder is rich. Without inherited connections, it takes about twelve months worth of work without a salary to produce something that VCs will even look at. (With such connections, VC mentoring comes immediately and a fundable product can be built within about half that time.) Even for the rich and well-connected, it’s dicey. VC acceptance rates are typically below 1 percent, so a lot of good ideas are being rejected, even coming from well-positioned people. Raising money is always hard, but for people who aren’t wealthy, the risk is generally intolerable: twelve months without salary and a high likelihood that it will amount to zilch. Why’s this relevant? Because rich people can afford a cavalier attitude toward failure. Losing a job just means moving vacations around. If one company dies, another can be built.

In an ideal world, everyone would be rich, by which I mean that material limits wouldn’t dominate peoples’ lives and their work in the way they do now. This would be a world of such abundance as to implicitly provide the safety associated with socialism, without the drawbacks, and in which poverty would be eliminated as thoroughly as smallpox. I believe humanity will reach a state like this, but probably not until the end of my lifetime, if not some time after I’m dead. In this “post-scarcity” world, libertarian capitalism would actually be a great system (and so it’s easy to see why out-of-touch rich people like it so much). Business failure would just be the impersonal death of bad ideas, resources would quickly be allocated to the good ones, and people would rise into and fall out of leadership positions as appropriate but could gracefully decline when not needed, rather than having to fire their help, pull their kids out of college, or move halfway across the country when this happens. If everyone were rich, libertarian capitalism would be a wonderful economic system. However, we don’t live in an ideal world. We have to make do with what we have.

In the real world, failure hurts people, and most of those people aren’t 23-year-olds with $5-million trust funds. Investors (not all of whom are rich) lose large amounts of money, and employees get fired, often without notice or severance. Careers of innocent people can be damaged. This doesn’t mean that failure is morally unacceptable. Good-faith failure must be accepted, because if failure leads to broad-based social rejection, you end up with a society where no one takes real risk and no advancement occurs. This isn’t an abstract danger. It’s something that most people see every single fucking day in the typical corporate workplace: a bland, risk-intolerant environment where people are so afraid of social rejection that people torture themselves in order to seem busy and important, but no one is taking creative risks, and real work isn’t getting done. So my attitude toward those who take risk and fail in good faith is one of empathy and, sometimes, admiration. I’ve been there. It happens to almost everyone who wants to accomplish something in this world.

My issue with “fail fast”, and the more general cavalier attitude toward business failure observed in VC-istan, is that people who espouse this mantra generally step outside the bounds of good-faith failure, responsible risk-taking, and ethical behavior. When you take millions of dollars of someone else’s money, you should try really fucking hard not to fail. It’s a basic ethical responsibility not to let others depend on you unless you will do your best not to let them down. You should put your all into the fight. If you give it your best and don’t make it, you’ve learned a lot on someone else’s dime. That’s fine. The problem with “fail fast” is that it sounds to me a lot like “give up early, when shit gets hard”. People with that attitude will never achieve anything.

Usually, the worst “fail fast” ethical transgressions are against employees rather than investors. Investors have rights. Dilute their equity in an unfair way, and a lawsuit ensues. Throw the business away recklessly, and end up in court– possibly in jail. One can’t easily fire an investor either; at the least, one has to give the money back. On the other hand, a remnant of the flat-out elitist, aristocratic mindset that we have to kill the shit out of every couple hundred years (cf. French Revolution) is the concept that investors, socially speaking, deserve to outrank employees. This is absurd and disgusting because employees are the most important actual investors, by far, in a technology company. Money investors are just putting in funds (and, in the case of VC, money that belongs to other people). They deserve basic respect of their interests for this, but it shouldn’t qualify them (as it does) to make most of the important decisions. Employees, for contrast, are investing their time, careers, creative energy, and raw effort, often for pay that is a small fraction of the value they add. Morally speaking, it means they’re putting a lot more into the venture.

I’ve seen too many sociopaths using “fail fast” rhetoric to justify their irresponsible risk-taking. One example of a fail-fast acolyte is someone in his mid-20s whom I once saw manage the technical organization of an important company. I won’t get into too many details, but it’s an ongoing and catastrophic failure, and although it’s evident to me at least (because I’ve seen this shit before) that he is personally headed toward disaster, it’s not clear whether the company will follow him down the drain. (That company is in serious danger of failing an important deliverable because of decisions he made.) I hope it doesn’t. First, he took a scorched earth policy toward the existing code, which was written under tight deadline pressure. (Despite this twerp’s claims to the contrary about the “old team”, the engineers who wrote it were excellent, and the code quality problems were a direct result of the deadline pressure.) I don’t consider that decision an unusual moral failure on his part. Give a 25-year-old programmer the authority to burn a bunch of difficult legacy code and he usually will. At that age, I probably would have done so as well. That’s one very good reason not to give snot-nosed kids the reins to important companies without close supervision. I remember being 18 and thinking I knew everything. A decade later… turns out I really didn’t. Taken too far, the “fail fast” mentality appeals to impulsive young males who enjoy waving a gun around and shooting at things they can’t see and don’t understand.

My second encounter with this person’s “fail fast” sociopathy was in a discussion of hiring strategy, in which he discussed building “30/60/90 plans” for new hires, which would entail milestones that new employees would be expected to meet. As a way of setting guidelines, this is not a bad idea. Technology workplaces are a bit too dynamic for people to actually know what a person’s priorities should be three months in advance, but it’s always good to have a default plan and baseline expectations. New hires typically come on board, in a chaotic environment, not knowing what’s expected or how to “on-board”, and a bit of structure is a useful. This little sociopath wanted to take things a bit further. He thought it would be a good idea to fire people immediately if they missed the targets. New hire takes 35 days to meet the 30-day goal? Gone, after one month. No chance to move to another part of the organization, no opportunity to improve, no notice, no severance, and it’s all made “fair” by putting all new hires on a PIP from the outset. I’m pretty sure, I’ll note, that this young twerp has never been fired himself– and my money’s on him being three to 12 months away from his first experience with it, depending on how fast he can learn that primary executive skill of shifting blame, and how long he can run it. These sorts of terrible ideas emerge when people are permitted to take irresponsible risks with others’ careers. Most of the damaging HR “innovations” companies invent (which become tomorrow’s morale-damaging bureaucratic cruft) occur not because they’re good ideas for the company, but because people within these companies want to propose wacky ideas that affect other people, in the hope that some “greater fool” in upper-management will see the half-baked concept as “visionary” and promote the person who invented it, regardless of the idea’s lack of merit. That’s how Google’s douche-tsunami (douchenami?) system of stack-ranking and “calibration scores”, for just one example, was born.

I don’t like people who are cavalier about failure when they haven’t been on the other side of it, either as an investor who lost a large sum of money, or as a laid-off or unjustly-fired employee. To put it plainly and simply: “failing fast” with other peoples’ risk is not courage. I say this as someone who has taken a lot of risks and failed a few times, who has always accepted the consequences of what he has started, and who has always done everything possible to make sure that anyone taking a risk with me knows what he or she is getting into.

I’m going to advise something altogether different from “fail fast”, because the term “fast” has chronological implications that I don’t find useful. Protracted failures driven by denial are bad, sure. I agree with that aspect of “fast”, but people should try to avoid failure if they can, rather than jumping immediately to declare defeat and move on to a sexier prospect. Fail safely or, at least, smartly. Know what the risks are, disclose them to those who are taking them, and be prepared to address failures that occur. There are cases where chronologically fast failure are appropriate, and there are times when it is not. Largely, the ethics of this come down to what risks the involved parties have agreed to take. People who invest in a startup accept the risk of losing the entire investment in a good-faith business failure, but they don’t accept the risk that the founder will just give up or do something overtly unethical with the money (bad-faith failure). Employees in startups accept the risk of losing their jobs immediately, without severance, if the company goes out of business; but if they’re misled about how much runway the company has, they’ve been wronged.

The ethics of “fail fast” depend largely on the explicit and implicit contracts surrounding failure: how failure is defined, and how it is to be handled. These are conversations people don’t like having, but they’re extremely important. Failures happen. Often these contracts are left implicit. For example, a person who joins a five-person company accepts that if he doesn’t fit well with the project (because a startup of that size only has one project) his employment must end. More on that, being a founder means that one will be (and should be) fired immediately if one doesn’t work well with the rest of the team, just as being a elected official means one accepts the risk of being fired for being unpopular. On the other hand, a person who joins a more stable, large company, does so with the expectation of risk mitigation. Specifically, people join large companies with the understanding that being a poor fit for one’s initial project doesn’t mean leaving the company. The additional robustness of career is a primary incentive for people to join huge companies. Therefore, large companies that impede internal mobility, usually under pretenses of false objectivity in the performance review process, are deeply unethical and their reputations should be tarnished gleefully and often, in order to prevent others in the future from being blown up by undisclosed risks.

The “fail fast” mantra implies that failure is hard, and that it takes a certain fortitude to look failure in the eye and accept the risk. Alone, that’s not hard. Lying down is easy. Quitting on someone else’s risk and dime is not hard. Letting people down is not hard. The hard part is communicating risks as they actually are to people before they get involved, finding people willing to take those risks, working as hard as possible not to let people down, and working even harder to help everyone recover from the loss should failure occur.

Non-solicitation clause considered immoral

I hope I am not unusual in that, whenever I join a company, I actually read the Employee Agreement. One term that is becoming increasingly popular is the (generally overbroad) non-solicitation agreement, designed to prevent employees from “solicitation” of colleagues after they depart from the company. Their purpose is to prevent “talent raids” whereby well-liked people encourage their colleagues to move along with them to their next company. By doing so, they create a culture in which to present an employee with a better opportunity is treated as comparable to stealing corporate property.

First, let me state that the fear of “talent raids” is vastly overstated. Recruiting’s hard, yo. No one is “raided” from a company. A person does not get “stolen” from a $140,000-per-year software job and forced to throw 75 hours per week into a risky startup. People move from one job to another when they perceive a better opportunity at the new job. That’s it. As long as the latter opportunity is represented honestly and properly, nothing wrong is happening.

I’m a veteran talent raider. I’ve helped startups hire brilliant people I met in middle school through national math contests. I’m also extremely ethical about it. If I don’t respect someone, I don’t want him or her in an organization that I respect. If I do respect someone, I’m going to do everything I can do to provide all information (positive and negative) about an opportunity. This isn’t a bullshit “I’m not selling” defense. I consider it a success when I sit down with a friend, tell him about an opportunity that I think is great, give him all the information he’ll need to make his decision, and he appreciates the information but rejects it. It means that I’ve done my job well. When I’m talent raiding, I’m usually trying to convince someone to make a risky move, and most people don’t like risk. So a conversion rate of 60 percent (which would be very high) would suggest that I’m doing something seriously wrong. Overpromising to a person whose talents and character I respect is the last thing I want to do. Careers last a lot longer than jobs, and companies can decay so rapidly (management changes) that sacrificing a relationship to improve a job is just a terrible idea.

Unethical solicitation I despise. It’s unethical when the company’s prospects, the role into which the person will be hired, or the type of work the person will be allocated, are overstated. This is, of course, not a behavior limited to small companies or intentional talent raids. It’s very common for companies of all kinds and sizes (as well as managers within generally ethical large companies, as I found out recently) to pull these bait-and-switch antics. There’s no legal recourse against companies that do this– and there shouldn’t be, as companies have the right to end projects and change priorities. If contract law doesn’t cover bait-and-switch, then what is the socially useful purpose of non-solicitation clauses? Absolutely none.

Of course, companies don’t have non-solicitation clauses to prevent unethical talent raids, and those clauses aren’t in place to protect employees (ha!). In fact, these companies would rather see their people lured away on false pretenses: they can hire them back. They’re much more afraid of ethical talent raids in which the employee is presented with a genuinely better opportunity. This represents an attitude in which employees are considered to be property, and it constitutes restriction of trade.

Worse yet, non-solicitation contracts discourage startup formation. If the “talent raider” moves to a large company like Google, he can reconstruct his team behind the scenes, but if he moves to a startup, he faces the risk that the non-solicit will actually be enforced. History does not know how many great startups have never formed because people were scared off by non-solicitation clauses.

These need to be ended. Now.