Most organisations say they want to tell their shareholders the truth. Less often acknowledged is the fact many have procedures and cultures in place which knowingly suppress honesty, and prevent employees from speaking out against falsehoods.
Our research, 'Epistemic Vices in Organizations' suggests this gives Human Resources (HR) professionals who want to uphold organisational integrity a dilemma. Ethics is not often thought about in day-to-day operations, and it is more frequently considered in terms of helping and harming others, than in terms of knowledge and truth.
Some managers and employees actively push political propaganda and malicious rumours. Companies like Exxon Mobil and McDonald’s have engaged in ‘astroturfing’; deliberate ploys to dupe customers and employees by setting up fake support for their initiatives.
More common, but no less worrisome, is lazy, apathetic indifference to facts and evidence. It is not unusual for managers to dismiss contradictory views or revel in buzzwords, jargon and ‘business bullshit’. Nor is it unheard of for companies to lack interest in whether the content they present on Facebook and Twitter is true, as long as it is popular.
Post-truth workplaces can also be encouraged by arrogant and overconfident leadership. An overbearing CEO can abuse their superiority to propagate their personal version of the truth throughout their organisation.
Powerful people who believe their knowledge is better, irrespective of skill or situation, find it easy to ignore or silence dissenting voices. This can have a significant negative impact on an organisation’s reputation and overall performance. The scandal around UK-based political data research company, Cambridge Analytica, can be traced back to its former chief Alexander Nix. His extraordinary hubris about the firm’s ability to make data-driven predictions ignored the fact the information was obtained unethically.
Fake news at work can be the result of a systematic effort to discredit employees or to subtly make them believe they are ignorant or mistaken. It is alleged former US President Obama’s female aides had to verbally repeat each other’s contributions to ensure they were taken seriously, and to avoid their ideas being misappropriated by men.
Everyone should feel safe to spot and challenge fake news at work, but that is not always the case. Hierarchies and soft power can make employees reluctant to speak up against falsehoods, meanwhile, the absence of clear policies can leave leaders without a means of tackling it.
Workplace-specific examples of untruthful behaviour should be written into misconduct policies. Channels for whistleblowing should be strengthened to empower employees, and rewards developed to celebrate conscientious truth-telling and lie-debunking.
We need a cultural and moral shift back towards the view people have the duty to tell the truth. It’s time to challenge the smoke and mirrors that have developed in the modern workplace.
An unabridged version of this post first appeared in HR Magazine.
Dr Thomas Calvard (pictured) is a lecturer in HR and organisation studies at the University of Edinburgh Business School.
Christopher Baird is a doctoral researcher in HR and organisational studies at the University of Edinburgh Business School.