When discussing ethics or honesty, people frequently focus their attention on the issue of whether a person is honest/ethical or not. This usually is a wasted effort that amounts to individual testimonials but casts little helpful light on the issue.

Not infrequently, one can hear people say "everyone knows the difference between honesty and dishonesty - now we expect everyone around here to be honest." This is much like a person who does not feel well going to a doctor and hearing the physician say "you are sick, now go home and be healthy." We expect the doctor to diagnose what is wrong, identify the cause and prescribe what it takes to get well and avoid the problem in the future.So, it is with ethical concerns. It is first useful to identify the nature of the problem, recognizing what forces are at play and only then does it make sense to prescribe a solution. Many of the difficulties with honesty is that people are just not aware of or understand what it is that gives rise to the problem. Most people see themselves as honest and are not cognizant of any dishonest behavior.

One of the early incidents that pushed me more deeply into the study of ethics in business occurred several years ago when I was asked to spend a half-day with 29 top executives just exploring ethics and honesty on the job. At the beginning of the 31/2 hour session, the participants were asked, "How many of you regard yourselves as honest businessmen?" (They were all men.) Twenty-nine hands went up. Then they were asked, "How many of you engage in dishonest business practices from time to time?" Not one hand went up. The morning was spent presenting actual business situations then asking the executives what they would do in each circumstance.

The discussion was active. They challenged each others' proposed actions and questioned the honesty of certain positions. Some acknowledged the questionable integrity but justified themselves with "that's just what it takes to survive." Just before lunch, another poll was taken. How many of you regard yourselves as honest businessmen? Three hands went up. How many of you engage in dishonest business practices? Twenty-six hands went up.

What happened? Did the instructor make dishonest people out of honest people in 31/2 hours? No. They just became aware of things they were not cognizant of before. To a large degree, they had come to feel that because certain things were "common practice" that it made them ethical or honest behavior. To some degree, their consciences had become seared, dulled to where otherwise dishonest behavior had become acceptable.

Let us here spend a few words in an attempt to raise the level of awareness. When one refers to another as being an "honest person," what do they mean? Do they mean the person is never dishonest? (Unlikely.) Honest 98 percent of the time? Honest more than 50 percent of the time? Or what?

Ask yourself, are there ever circumstances when lying is justified? Would you lie if it would save your family from the threat of death or injury? Would you lie if it would keep your company from bankruptcy? Would you lie if it were necessary to gain money for Friday's payroll? Would you lie if it would avoid offending the boss? Would you lie if it would avoid hurting the FOCUSContinued from D?

sensitivities of a child or sweetheart? Would you lie if it helped attain some noble end? (One internationally famous religious leader said, "Lying, for instance, is not taboo but a necessary tool in battling Satan. Falsehoods help convert nonbelievers: They are therefore praised as `heavenly deceptions.' " (Reverend Moon as quoted in U.S. News, March 27, 1989, page 28)

In discussion groups, the author has found many who answer "yes" to most of the above questions. Then the group is asked when would you not lie - only when there are no significant consequences? When the score is 53 to 3, seldom will that be a good test of an athlete's sportsmanship. The real test comes when there are 11/2 minutes to go and his team is three points behind. So it is in business - when there is plenty of money in the bank and market share is increasing - is not the time to measure a business executive's real standard of ethics, but what he did when creditors were threatening a lawsuit and stockholders were pressing for better results or else will be a much better indicator.

Once people acknowledge that there are times, as listed above, that they would justify lying, then spending time talking about whether that person is honest or not is moot, it is just wasted time. The important question now centers around identifying under what circumstances would you lie and under what circumstances would you not. A person's honesty is not defined by whether he will lie or not lie, but under what circumstances he will or won't.

One useful step then, in wrestling with the problems of honesty, is to get past the false illusion that people can be categorized as honest or dishonest. No one is completely honest. All lie or would lie under circumstances and feel justified. Therefore, building effective relations with another is best done by defining that other person's honesty in terms of would he lie in this or that circumstance or I can count on her not to lie in this and this circumstance.

Quinn McKay is a business executive, consultant and writer in the field of business ethics.