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How Low Can You Go?

How far would you go to nail down your next gig? Oh, maybe you'd torque the truth a tad to make a customer think you're the coolest thing since Sub-Zero, or promise more than you know you can deliver, or take on a money-making assignment that you really don't believe is in your client's best interest. Where do you draw the line? Would you say anything, whatever it takes, to get the work?

After all, there's no boss sniffing around, and anyway, everybody fudges now and then, don't they? What's to stop you from engaging in a little creative confabulation when a juicy contract might be riding on it? "I really believe that being an IP can have the opposite effect," says Jeffrey L. Seglin, who writes a monthly business ethics column for the Sunday New York Times, teaches at Emerson College, and is the author of The Good, The Bad, and Your Business. "In a company setting, when a boss asks you to do something that you know will involve having to lie, you might justify it by pinning the responsibility on the boss," Seglin says. "You may still feel like a louse, but at least you're a louse with an excuse. Remove the boss from the picture and it comes down to -- well, you. Once you start with a small lie to get the business, it's just a few steps to a slightly bigger lie to keep the business." Next thing you know, you're pretending to be a nuclear physicist when all the job calls for is a lab technician.

Most of us learn early that lies have a way of snowballing, that quick as a blink, you've acquired an adhesive reputation as a liar and a cheat. "When it's you and only you," Seglin says, "and you're caught in a lie, it's more likely to stick. And people talk." At the same time, anybody who's ever ventured out on their lonesome will, given the right inducement, fess up to a flourish here or a bit of embroidery there as perfectly acceptable, expected -- even required -- business practice. But here Seglin makes a key distinction between what he calls "posturing," and bald-faced lying. "Prospective partners judge you partly on your ability to convince them that you're going to be able to deliver on your grandiose plans," he points out. "So you talk enthusiastically, you bid aggressively." That's posturing, and everybody does do it. In fact, if your behavior doesn't show that you're amped up on your own potential, you don't have a chance; audacity, or what Seglin refers to as "ruthless optimism," is an essential part of the start-up samba. But it only works in the short run, since ultimately, your promises must be followed by performance (even if your name is Jeff Bezos). Flat-out lying -- whether you think you have to do it to stay in business, or because you believe you have a good reason to lie -- is a hearse of a different color.

Suppose at a cocktail party you boast of your long-standing relationship with your client, Mr. Bigg, whose sorry ass you've saved too many times to count. Unfortunately, you wouldn't know Mr. B. if he sat on you. Or you start spewing your blue-chip client list -- AT&T, HP, IBM. Only you know (you hope) that the extent of your professional involvement was to mow their corporate lawns the summer you were fifteen. Or maybe you claim an advanced degree that you didn't earn (your spiffy diploma came from one of those Internet sites). Posturing or lying? "It's wrong," Seglin says. "You get embroiled in a tale that grows and grows and grows, so that when it's ultimately discovered, it seems as if you're a pathological liar who's fabricated an entire life, rather than someone who started small and couldn't navigate out of the muck." Sure, you might get away with it, but Seglin has observed that "there are fewer second chances when the company's name is your own. And then, before you know it, you're begging for your wage-slave job back because no one wants to hire you and no one wants to throw you any work."

Bear in mind, too, that in the Internet Age, it's a cinch to run a basic background check on anybody, no private detective required. An employment lawyer once told Jeffrey Seglin that roughly half the background checks she's done turn up something stinky. "People shouldn't make stuff up, but conversely, the buyer has a responsibility to check out credentials," Seglin says. "And if we dispense with it, then we should just base our decisions on personality and the strength of a project proposal. Or if you choose the cynical option, we should just assume that we're all making this stuff up and it goes with the territory."

On the Other Hand

But, yes, there are times when telling the whole truth is just stunningly dumb, especially when it comes to bargaining tactics. Think about it: an obsessive truth-teller is the last person you'd want on your side of the table. That's because half the art of the deal is knowing when to shut up already, when to leave a fact vague or unspoken, and when to stall. To gain the upper hand in a negotiation, you'd open with something less than your final offer, because if you told the whole truth right off the bat, you'd lose your bargaining position. Or you might mislead your opponent by giving the distinct impression that you're favoring a certain outcome, but stop short of saying so. If somebody calls you on it later, you can honestly say you didn't lie (but you didn't quite tell the truth, either). That's the way business works, both sides know it, and both sides play it for all it's worth.

A certain degree of deception may be par for most business negotiations, but notice how drastically the rules shift when we're talking about high-stakes competitive bidding. Say you're in the running for a big design project, one you're just dying to win. You decide to low-ball your bid to get the assignment in the first place. Later, when you're so deep into the job there's no way out, you let the client know that your expenses are running higher than you projected because the job's more complex and time-consuming than anyone could have foreseen at the beginning. Of course, that's precisely what you counted on. By the time you have your little chat, it's cheaper for the client to ante up than it would be to start over with somebody new.

Lying about prices is a risky approach. For one thing, fire-sale prices by themselves are no guarantee that you'll get the work. Plenty of clients will tell you that cost is only a fraction of what goes into picking an IP; what they really crave is somebody who understands their business and what they need. Additionally, persistent low-balling is sure to besmirch your good name.

So I have two recommendations for people like us, IPs who are sometimes flummoxed by where to draw the ethical line. First, indulge in a little private self-appraisal: a conscience is a terrible thing to waste. "It's impossible not to have your personal values affect the way you do business," Jeff Seglin says. "Folks at Acme Widgets may be able to put this off and foist the excuse that they're acting the way everyone at Acme Widgets has always acted. But that's probably a big reason why an IP left a company like Acme in the first place."

Second, put together your very own mini-board of directors, a handful of people you know and trust who can help you think through the implications of your actions. You get no points for struggling alone. "It's a godsend to have someone or a series of someones you can run a thorny business dilemma by," Seglin agrees. "Operating in a vacuum when you could get the help of really smart people you respect strikes me as myopic and masochistic."

The ultimate imperative of building a business, let's not forget, is to make something people want to buy, and as every IP knows, that takes guts. "Guts translate into confidence that you really can do good work," Seglin says. "Who cares if everyone cuts ethical corners? I'd like to think that one of the advantages of being an IP is that you don't have to do what everyone else does."

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Nancy K. Austin if you like. You may also like to see her biography.

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