A Matter of Honesty

A close look at personal dishonesty—and at ways to avoid it

Bill was a devoted church goer, a friend of nearly everyone around, and the leading businessman in his small town. He was the local boy who made good by implementing wise and honest business practices. Soon he had built a lavish house complete with an indoor swimming pool, a sauna, and a three-car garage. He worked hard, and he was generous, extending credit to farmers in a bind and doing favors for others.

Some time later, Bill’s finances took a terrible turn for the worse. As a result, he asked some creditors to wait for their money, and he gave a few others bad checks. To make matters worse, his cash flow problems were compounded because he was over three million dollars in debt. Faced with certain financial ruin, Bill felt he had no choice but to embezzle funds to cover his losses and expenses.

On a winter day, as a result of his losses and an unexpected visit from a state auditor who would detect his wrongdoings, Bill drove several miles outside of town and took his own life.

This true story causes one to wonder. How did Bill get himself into such a predicament? What caused the town’s leading businessman, its most prominent citizen, and an otherwise honest person, to get caught up in dishonest activities?

In Bill’s case, these questions may never be completely answered. But perhaps they can help us understand honesty and some of its implications in our own lives. These implications can be very important, since many of us may never have given serious thought to how honest we really are.

In a talk he gave at Brigham Young University in 1958, Elder Spencer W. Kimball suggested some questions we would all do well to ask ourselves:

“Are you honest in your dealings? Do you bear a good reputation among Saints and nonmembers for paying obligations? Do you live within your means? Do you only borrow what you have reasonable chance to repay? Do you oppress the employee? Do you give an honest day’s work for your wages? Do you keep your word?” (See The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982, p. 194.)

A Rising Epidemic

There are many honest people in the world today. Nevertheless, dishonesty has grown to monumental proportions. Consider the following studies reported in the United States alone:

—One source reports that 70 percent of all inventory losses are due to employee theft, and 76 percent of all employees steal from the companies they work for. (Deseret News, 29 January 1976.) Some insurance companies believe that 75 percent of all claims submitted to them have dishonestly overstated the losses. (Church News, 8 March 1975.)

—A governmental body estimates losses from fraud and other nonviolent crimes in the United States to be $200 billion a year. The FBI estimates that the cost of purchased goods in the U.S. is 15 to 30 percent higher because of the fraudulent practices of businesses and their employees. (Steve Albrecht, et al., How to Detect and Prevent Business Fraud, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1982. p. 22.)

—Conservative estimates indicate that shoplifting occurs at least six times a day in every retail store, with shoplifters taking an average of three items.

Dishonesty also takes place on a more personal level. Children often lie to their parents about their activities, saying they are going one place and actually going to another. They sometimes give their parents half truths, telling them what they are doing, for example, but not telling them that the activity is unsupervised.

Why People Commit Dishonest Acts

Three factors generally influence the committing of a dishonest act. (See the complete discussion in How to Detect and Prevent Business Fraud.) First, there is a motive, such as greed, speculation, peer pressure, or living beyond one’s means. Second, a person sees available opportunities to commit and conceal the act. He feels he can get away with the dishonest act and effectively cover his tracks, at least for the time being. The third factor is some flaw in the person’s character which allows him to commit the dishonest act. This flaw can take one of several forms. Some dishonest individuals rationalize their actions. Others realize that an act is wrong but believe the end justifies the means. Others know that the action is wrong but, in full knowledge, commit the dishonest act anyway. All these weaknesses leave us open to the temptations of Satan, “the father of all lies.” (See 2 Ne. 2:18.)

Recognizing and Controlling Motives

What causes an “honest” person to act dishonestly? “Practically all dishonesty owes its existence and growth to this inward distortion we call ‘self-justification,’” Elder Spencer W. Kimball once told a group of businessmen. “It is the first, the worst and the most insidious and damaging form of cheating—to cheat oneself.” (Kimball, p. 198.) Many fraud perpetrators say that the pressures a person faces can become so intense that he convinces himself that he has to act; he sees dishonesty as the only solution—or the least costly solution to his problem. “I’m as honest as the next fellow,” said a self-deceived inmate serving time in prison for fraud. “But I was backed up against the wall. I didn’t have any other alternative.”

These pressures or motives can be created by many things, such as situations at work or at home, personal habits, and appetites. The most common motivation in business dealings is financial. One study found that eighty-eight of one hundred embezzlers were under immediate financial strain. For example, one man went on a spending spree after a marital squabble; his wife felt compelled to embezzle funds from her employer to cover her husband’s checks. Many surety companies attribute most of their losses to people following a life-style that exceeds their financial resources.

The motive for dishonest actions, however, isn’t always financial. It can be unrealistic expectations, resentment of others, or peer pressures.

One faithful, long-time employee was passed over for a raise he felt he had earned. Earning $1,250 a month, he decided he was entitled to a 10 percent raise and embezzled exactly $125 a month. His “moral standards” permitted him to steal that much because the company “owed” it to him. But he could not embezzle one cent more—that would have been dishonest!

A good student taking a test received a note asking for “help” from a friend who was not prepared. Not wanting to jeopardize the friendship, the student gave him the answers. Peer pressure often causes people to compromise personal standards of morality or the Word of Wisdom in order to avoid rejection.

Another person, hurt by an acquaintance, “got even” through unkind remarks, gossip, and failing to correct misunderstandings others had about that person. Her dishonesty was just as serious as if she had embezzled funds from her employer, perhaps more serious, for she emotionally wounded another human being.

A first step towards controlling potential motives for dishonesty is to recognize them and eliminate as many of them from our lives as we can. Then we need to exercise control over the remaining pressures and motivations.

For example, since financial problems are a great motivator of dishonest acts, putting our financial affairs in order is one of the first and most important steps to take. It may be necessary to seek counsel from qualified people to learn how to set up a workable budget, reduce debts and unwise expenditures, and get on the road to financial health. As we learn to apply the principles of financial and resource management, we can begin to live within our income, stay out of debt, avoid speculation, continue to use proper budgeting techniques, and upgrade our employment where advisable.

It is also important to learn to control and eliminate from our lives the feelings of resentment, frustration, or revenge that would cause us to want to hurt our employers or associates by committing a dishonest act. Should negative feelings arise and remain with us, we must seek to rid ourselves of them through prayer, through counseling if needed, or by having open and honest communication with those for whom we harbor ill feelings.

Recognizing and Controlling Opportunities

Every day we are surrounded with numerous opportunities to act dishonestly. The Lord did not intend for us to live in a world where temptation didn’t exist; it was Satan’s plan to rob us of our free agency. The Lord’s plan was to “prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” (Abr. 3:25.)

Even though we cannot always control our trials and temptations, we can control how we react to them. No matter how strong the motivation or how tempting the opportunity, we can still behave honestly. Were not a strong motivation and an opportunity present when Satan tempted Christ on the mount? The hunger resulting from a forty-day fast and the power and fame offered by Satan were certainly powerful motivations. Opportunity was present because Christ had the power, as the Son of God, to accomplish the things Satan tempted him to do. But even in the face of such great temptation, the Savior did not succumb. (See Matt. 4:1–11.) As we develop a Christlike character, we, too, can learn to make honest choices no matter how great the pressures and opportunity.

As we make honest choices, we can also lessen the opportunity for others to be dishonest. In the work environment, for example, we can develop systems of checks and balances or other controls to reduce people’s ability to steal financial resources.

One company lost $1,150,000 because checks were written on the company’s account by an outsider. Access to blank checks was easy: the supply was kept in an unlocked storeroom that every clerk and secretary had access to. The checks had been written on a checkwriting machine that automatically signed the president’s name. The opportunity for dishonesty could have been eliminated easily. Simple steps such as locking cars and houses, closing the garage, or keeping a lock on a gym locker also lessen the temptation and opportunity for others to be dishonest.

We can help others be more honest, too, by being impeccably honest ourselves. We should have the moral courage to report or discipline others’ dishonest acts; undetected or unpunished dishonesty can lead to even more dishonesty.

Recognizing and Controlling Character Weaknesses

There are a number of character flaws or weaknesses that “allow” otherwise honest people to commit dishonest acts. A number of people rationalize their way into dishonesty. Rationalization sometimes takes the form of statements such as these: “If they only knew why I did it, they would understand.” “Everybody is doing it.” “Honesty is the best policy, but business is business.” “It’s OK because I’ll make up for it by …”

Some people who steal explain their actions as “borrowing” money from their companies. They intend to replace the “borrowed” money before the theft is discovered. Other people always seem to operate in what they consider “gray” areas—those areas which are often difficult to define as either honest or dishonest. It is a simple, easy step to dishonesty from these fringes.

Rationalizations and reasons are many and varied. But we can develop and strengthen our level of personal integrity by striving to obtain the Christlike trait of complete and total honesty. We can do this in several ways:

1. Seek the Spirit of the Lord through fasting, prayer, and studying the scriptures and the teachings of our modern prophets. We should ask for the Lord’s assistance in becoming more honest.

2. Carefully examine our lives to identify situations in which honesty isn’t properly defined. “It would be well,” said Elder Spencer W. Kimball, “if all of us would take frequent inventory to see if hidden away under the rugs and in the corners of our lives there might be some vestige of hypocrisy and ugliness or error … small eccentricities and dishonestness. Are there any cobwebs in ceilings and corners which we think will not be noticed? Are we trying to cover up the small pettiness and the small gratifications we secretly allow ourselves—rationalizing the while that they are insignificant and inconsequential? Are there areas in our thoughts and actions and attitudes which we would like to hide from those we respect most?” (Kimball, p. 198.)

For each situation we examine, we should determine honest behavior and conform our actions accordingly. Then we must repent and make restitution, if necessary, for previous dishonest acts and commit ourselves to respond in an honest fashion.

Determining honest behavior in specific situations isn’t always easy. We are sometimes confronted with situations that are unclear or uncertain, making the distinction between right and wrong very difficult. These situations require fasting and prayer, soul searching, and help from trusted advisers. Consistent application of gospel principles, asking ourselves what the Savior would do in the situation, can greatly help in determining appropriate behavior.

3. Conscientiously strive to teach our children to be honest. Several studies conclude that parental teachings are the most important factor in determining how honestly a person behaves. One study concluded that individuals would behave honestly if parents would do two things: consistently reward honest behavior and punish dishonest behavior; and consistently tell their children what is right, or honest, and what is wrong, or dishonest. It is important to note that both practices must be followed consistently or children may become inconsistent in their honesty.

4. Carefully evaluate the effect our example has on others. In many peoples’ lives, honesty is continually being defined and redefined as parents, associates, and employers label situations and reward behavior. Our actions shouldn’t cancel the impact of our teachings.

One young mother tells the story of a family home evening lesson on honesty, followed by a hurried trip to church. As she was speeding to get to church on time, one of the children observed that the speedometer was exceeding the posted speed limit and that mommy was breaking the law. “Yes, we are speeding,” the mother responded, “but we’re late and need to get to church on time.” She didn’t realize until later that she had ruined her lesson on honesty.

5. Realize that society often encourages or condones dishonesty. When offenders aren’t punished, dishonesty is indirectly encouraged. Lenient sentences also indirectly encourage dishonesty. Movies and television often glamorize dishonest people, minimizing or justifying their wrong and providing us with a “good reason” why the act was “acceptable” or “necessary.” This glamorization can lead us and our children to believe that dishonest acts are not wrong if they are “justifiable.” We must constantly guard against such notions.

Complete Honesty

One of the most valuable character traits a person may possess is complete honesty. Elder William Grant Bangerter has said: “Honesty is the foundation of a sound character and the keystone of all other virtues.” (New Era, Sept. 1979, p. 4.) An English poet once stated it well: “An honest man’s the noblest work of God.” (Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, Epistle IV, line 247.)

We can be totally honest in our dealings with our fellow man. For many of us, it may involve a lot of fasting, prayer, repentance, and hard work. But then, when we are interviewed for a temple recommend, we can respond to the questions about being honest in our dealings with our fellowman with a confident “yes”—rather than mumbling, “I’m trying to be.”

How Honest Are You?

Included in this quiz are some “small” things that really are not honest.

Maybe you wouldn’t embezzle money from your employer, but would you—

1. Take home paper, pencils, pens, or equipment or use the company photocopier for unauthorized personal items?

2. Use the company’s telephone for personal long-distance calls?

3. Use company stamps to mail personal letters without specific permission?

4. Take another person’s ideas and present them as your own?

5. Manipulate the facts when you fail to complete an assigned task or meet a specified goal?

6. Call in sick when you are not really sick?

7. Fail to give a day’s work for a day’s pay?

Maybe you wouldn’t break into someone’s house and take his possessions, but would you—

8. Write a check for your purchases when you know you don’t have enough money in your account to pay for them?

9. Take others’ thoughts and ideas by copying their answers on a test?

10. Borrow from your neighbor and not return the items, or return them in worse shape than when you borrowed them?

11. Misrepresent the benefits of a product you sell, or talk in half-truths in order to increase sales?

12. Sell your customers defective goods, or charge them for work not done?

Maybe you wouldn’t steal from the government, but would you—

13. Cheat on your income taxes by not reporting income or by overstating expenses or deductions?

14. Use government property for unauthorized personal use?

Maybe you wouldn’t steal from the Church or the Lord, but would you—

15. Fail to pay a full tithe, a generous fast offering, and other Church assessments?

16. Fail to magnify your priesthood and Church responsibilities?

Maybe you wouldn’t physically assault or abuse someone, but would you—

17. Rob them of their virtue or any part of it?

18. Spread damaging rumors, lies, gossip, or half-truths to harm a person’s reputation?

Maybe you wouldn’t lie to your bishop or stake president, but would you—

19. Manipulate the feelings of others to make you feel good about yourself?

20. Sign a contract or make an oral promise and then fail to live up to it?

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “A Matter of Honesty,” you may want to think about the following questions or discuss them with a friend or family member:

1. Use the quiz to determine areas in which you might feel tempted to be dishonest. How can you eliminate either the motive or the opportunity to do such acts?

2. The article points out that one motive for dishonesty in our business dealings is financial insecurity. How are your personal and family finances? What can you do to get or keep them in order?

3. Do you have a tendency to tell white lies or to gossip? What can you do to rid yourself of these habits?

4. How can you keep your home and possessions more secure against others’ dishonesty?

5. What kind of an example do you set?

[photos] Photography by Eldon Linschoten