“Ok, lying is bad, we need to be upfront, honest, transparent, blah. blah, blah,” said Jeff as he exhaled. “But sometimes, you just have to bend the truth to protect the volunteer. I found myself having to tell a little white lie not too long ago to a volunteer who did nothing wrong. You see, this volunteer, Hal, is a real stand up type guy. He’s honest, hardworking, well, you know the type, a guy you’d want for a next door neighbor.”
Jeff is a manager of volunteers who deliver meals to home bound seniors in a small rural enclave. “So, this particular client of ours, a lady who is getting other services besides meals delivered, called her social worker and accused Hal of stealing a statue from her hall table. Before I had the chance to question Hal, the social worker went to her house and found the statue, which had somehow found its way to another table. It was case closed. But she didn’t want Hal to come back and honestly, I wasn’t going to let him go back there anyway. So basically, I told Hal that the lady was moving and we had to take her off the route.”
Jeff paused. “I don’t like lying in any form, but why would I tell Hal the truth? For what, it was a mistake, so what could be gained by telling him? Would he not then be leery of all his clients? Would he wonder what accusation could come next? Would his whole experience be tainted?”
The other night, I watched a 1960s comedy in which the main character overheard his doctor on the phone speaking about another patient who was just diagnosed with a terminal illness and of course the main character thought it was him. Part of the misunderstanding came when he overheard his doctor say, “tell him? No, he doesn’t need to know, it will just upset him.” This reminded me of Dr. Eric Cassell, the author of “The Nature of Suffering” who candidly spoke about the days when he was a young doctor and did not tell patients they had cancer. “We didn’t do it because we were liars,” he said. Instead he asserts that they told little white lies to protect the patient from the truth, because the patient would ask what can be done and doctors had nothing to offer.
Noble little white lies: I have told them to volunteers too. Occasionally a family will not want a volunteer to come back. “She talks too much,” or “we just don’t get along,” or “he isn’t the type to enjoy my Dad’s jokes,” are just a few of the really benign reasons a family may not want the volunteer to come back. Did I pass that along to the volunteer? Nope, I like Jeff, shielded the volunteer from the non pleasantries of being dismissed due to a perceived character flaw. One volunteer innocently shared a personal story with a family and they were insulted. Their social worker told me that this family was highly sensitive and assured me that the volunteer did nothing wrong. I told the volunteer that the family found help elsewhere and that we would reassign him to a new family that needed his considerable talents more.
Kind, noble little white lies: In the old days, I, like Dr. Cassell, decided to use a white lie to protect volunteers from anything less than my idea of volunteering, which was unicorns and puppies. There were volunteers who, in my humble opinion, were not right for assignments, like speaking to a group, or representing us at a ceremony. I told myself that by noble lying I was sparring them from the knowledge that I didn’t think they were good enough for the job. But, as these falsehoods started to feel like an oil slick on my tongue, it began to dawn on me. What, really was I doing by telling these kind, noble white lies?
Self-serving, kind, noble white lies: One day, I had to counsel a volunteer on her behavior. This was a volunteer who worked on Sunday in a hospice house. As we all know, weekends are harder to fill than weekdays, so really, weekend volunteers pretty much have to set fire to the joint to get fired. This was not the first time I had heard a complaint about this volunteer’s behavior. I had spoken with her before, using my kind, noble white lie to shield the volunteer from the unpleasant accusations. After all, this volunteer didn’t deserve that, or did she? Ahh, the little annoying voice in my head wanted to know if I was being noble or (horrors) being selfish. Who, me, kind, noble volunteer manager, selfish? Was it really about protecting the volunteer’s feelings or was it more about having to replace this volunteer, a task that would take a lot of hard work? Was my lie so noble, so kind, so pure? (I hate you, little annoying voice.)
Having to do the right thing is never easy. I reached back and straightened my spine and spoke frankly to the volunteer and to my surprise she did not quit. She took the criticisms seriously and promised to curb her brusque nature. But, did she actually change? Yes, not completely and not right away, but the complaints stopped. As I checked in with weekend staff on her progress, I found that she was honestly trying. I added a call to commend her for her efforts and after a time, she and the staff forged their own relationship. It took extra work, but it was the right thing to do, not only for our patients, but for staff and the volunteer as well.
Gray Lies: Do we tell lies to protect the volunteer or to protect us? I think in most cases, it is both. We may have a noble reason to shield volunteers from negativity, but aren’t we also shielding ourselves from the presumptive fallout? Honestly, we are. Are we bad people for doing that? No, we are just human. So why even bother to explore our reasons for these gray lies? Because if we value honesty, then we first and foremost have to be honest with ourselves. Why am I using noble lies? Am I relying on them to minimize conflict so that everything runs smoothly? Is that really my end game or am I just afraid to deal with confrontation and too weary to help fix it?
No Lies: Hmmmm. Will we ever get to this point? We can, if we have the best interests of our clients at heart, and if we truly view our volunteers as adults who can handle the truth. If we want our volunteers to succeed, we have to help them find success by working with them, not around, in back or detached from them. So, the next time I want to shield a volunteer from the truth, I’m going to have to examine if I’m really shielding myself.