Are white lies ethical?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 1995, 12:00am

A READER recently took me to task for advising executive travellers to book a restaurant table for three even though they are only a party of two - because that secures them a larger table out of sardine row. The reader concluded I was encouraging people to tell a lie, albeit a white lie. The reader also suggested that much of the supposedly 'street smart' advice herein seemed to stretch the limits of ethical conduct. He wanted to know how I reconciled that.

I don't have an automatic answer for him. But I do know that situations occur in all walks of life where a touch of gamesmanship and bending (rather than breaking) the rules is the norm.

You see this, for example, on the baseball field when a pitcher suddenly loses his fastball or his control. The team needs to send in a relief pitcher quickly before the opposing batters cause too much damage. Since neither the manager nor pitching coach foresaw the pitcher's sudden demise, no one in the bullpen is ready. How does the manager correct this instance of poor planning? The manager signals from the dugout for the catcher to go to the mound and talk to the pitcher. The catcher doesn't have anything particularly pertinent to say. He's stalling for time while a relief pitcher hurriedly warms up in the bullpen. Soon the first baseman and shortstop wander to the mound to prolong the discussion. The plate umpire then trudges to the mound to break up the meeting. As play is about to resume, the manager may send the pitching coach to the mound to eat up another minute of time.

If the manager is lucky, the umpire may argue with the coach, as more seconds tick by. Eventually, the manager will slowly plod to the mound and send the pitcher to the showers, by which time the reliever is warmed up and ready.

Everyone in the ballpark knows the drill, including the umpire. The charade is part of the game and is usually entertaining.

Booking the table for three is the same harmless charade. It is part of the gamesmanship of dining in restaurants. It's a two-way street. Maitre d's are not totally honest or egalitarian when it comes to table availability. We all know they play favourites (especially with regular or powerful patrons). They make you wait even through you have a confirmed reservation and show up on time. They can be extremely arbitrary and vindictive about where they seat you. It's nice to be able to turn the tables on them once in a while.

It's no different than triple-booking airline reservations to combat the institutional white lie of airline overbooking. This sort of gamesmanship is sometimes the traveller's only weapon to guarantee a seat on a plane.

I don't want to create the impression that I practise this gamesmanship 100 per cent of the time. Fortunately, most of the time I don't have to.

The overwhelming majority of transactions and relationships in business and in life are fair and uncomplicated. But on occasion you may have to confront people who bend the rules at your expense. When you find yourself in that ethical grey area, a little bit of whitewashing doesn't hurt - and may be absolutely necessary.

Another reader referred to my comment that 'people who are desperate to get a deal done tend to give up more than they should. Their desperation forces them into bad or mediocre deals.' He writes that not all of us have the luxury of being able to walk away from a mediocre deal, and asks which I would choose if there were no other options: a desperate deal or no deal at all? My first impulse is to go with the desperate deal - not for the obvious reason that you may be able to make it work - but because it's a valuable learning experience. However, I wouldn't recommend it twice. You only have to get locked into a bad deal once to appreciate the wisdom of walking away when things don't sound right.

For an example that hits close to home to anyone in business, just think about the last time you hired someone because you were desperate to fill a position rather than wait for a candidate with the right credentials. How much money, time, and grief did that 'desperate deal' cost you? No matter how desperate things look when the customer in front of you threatens to disappear unless you accept his terms, the wise response is to let it pass. There will always be another customer who is interested in what you're selling.

Also, if you stick to your guns, you stand a decent chance of turning around an unreasonable prospect. If you cave in, you'll never know if you could have done better.