Excerpted from the author’s new book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How we lie to everyone – especially ourselves. (Harper 2012)
A few years ago, in one of my graduate classes, I lectured about some of my research related to conflicts of interest. After class, a student (I’ll call her Jennifer) told me that the discussion had struck a chord with her. It reminded her of an incident that had taken place a few years earlier, when she was working as a certified public accountant for a large accounting firm.
Jennifer told me that her job had been to produce the annual reports, proxy statements, and other documents that would inform shareholders of the state of their companies’ affairs. One day her boss asked her to have her team prepare a report for the annual shareholders’ meeting of one of their larger clients. The task involved going over all of the client’s financial statements and determining the company’s financial standing. She did her best to prepare the report as accurately as possible, without, for example, overclaiming the company’s profits or delaying reporting any losses to the next accounting year.
Later that day, Jennifer got the report back with a note from her boss. It read, “I don’t like these numbers. Please gather your team and get me a revised version by next Wednesday.”
After deliberating for a while, she concluded that she and her team should comply with his request; after all, he was her boss, and he certainly knew a lot more than she did about accounting, how to work with clients, and the client’s expectations. In the end, although Jennifer started the process with every intention of being as accurate as possible, she wound up going back to the drawing board, reviewing the statements, reworking the numbers, and returning with a “better” report. That time, her boss was satisfied.