Picture a sparsely decorated set, painted gray by virtue of slanting light. Beyond, an Interrotron--a device that effectively acts as both camera and teleprompter--creating intimacy between subject, speaker, and viewer.
This is the main set for the new documentary film "(DIS)Honesty: The Truth About Lies", which premiered in New York City Friday at the artsy IFC theater. Over the course of two years, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Yael Melamede, together with producer and behavioral economist Dan Ariely, set out for a deep, critical, and--dare I say it--honest look at how the lives of ordinary people are forever altered by the seemingly innocuous lie.
You might recognize some of the film's prominent subjects: There's Ryan Holiday, who--in an effort to expose what he views as the decline of journalistic integrity--habitually lied as a source through HARO (Help A Reporter Out), to several high-profile news outlets. Then there's Garrett Bauer and Matthew Kluger, insider traders who were both arrested and sentenced to prison. Don't forget Kelley Williams Bolar, a single mother living in Akron, Ohio, who was convicted for lying about her address so that her two young daughters could have access to a better education in a neighboring school district.
In 90 minutes, and with the goal of examining dishonesty generally, as opposed to any one victim or culprit, Melamede weaves together the stories and consequences of eight, remarkable, and socially shamed individuals.
"I wanted to do seven," she told Inc. by phone. "Odd numbers are better, because odd numbers set up a rhythm of some kind. I come from an architecture background, and the same thing [applies]." But Melamede was unwilling to sacrifice any of the stories she'd worked to tell.
The film is well-crafted, to be sure, but it's the emotions that really counted for Melamede. "We really started just wanting to hear people's stories," she says. "Stories of transgressions were probably going to be pretty interesting."
Understandably, it was difficult to get individuals to commit to the project at first. But once they arrived on set, Melamede was shocked by their overall willingness to open up. "They wanted to help people by sharing their experiences, by using their own voice versus having their story told for them by the media. It made them feel respected again," she says.
Significantly, according to Melamede, this is not simply a moral quandary: The implications of dishonesty in the workplace--from a business owner's perspective, as well as from those of your employees--are great. In fact, Melamede and Ariely hope to use footage from their film to influence companies nationwide to adopt or improve their own ethics training programs. At the very least, they want to raise questions around ethics.
"Entrepreneurs in particular, you're at the whim of so many forces around you...you have a lot of conflicts of interests, because you're trying to sell something all the time and raise money, and it's very hard to keep track of what's absolutely reasonable or not, because you're being pulled in so many directions," says Melamede.
One very concrete way in which dishonesty costs a business is good ol' shrinkage.
"The amount that businesses lose due to employee theft is actually staggering, and oftentimes it's done because people feel like they're wronged in other areas," says Melamede. To wit, employee theft and fraud can cost companies as much as $50 billion annually, according to recent estimates, with retail losing out on $42 billion in 2014 alone.
"Expense reports, or office supplies, or things that seem really small actually have a really big impact," she says. "They also speak to something else that's not quite right."
In looking at the complexity of dishonest words and actions, the film also looks at what happens when you lie for someone else's benefit, as opposed to your own. The consequences are different (and often largely positive), according to Ariely, who recently authored: "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie To Everyone--Especially Ourselves."
If effective, "(Dis)Honesty" will force you to question your own ethics, and to what extent your company culture is even willing to discuss it. If Melamede is right, it's in the very asking of why we lie--and identifying where you stand--that you can begin to understand what it means to be human.