They used to say a man's word was his bond. Back in the day, a handshake was all it took to make a deal. As long as two people agreed verbally, the deal was as definite as could be and didn't require a signed version.

When I joined the Waldorf=Astoria hotel sales department many years ago, we refrained from pursuing a convention when customers told us they had notified another hotel verbally that it had been selected on a definite basis. It was about doing the right thing rather than whether or not it would hold up in court prior to being put in writing.

If we asked a thousand people if an agreement had to be written down to be legal, I'd bet most would say yes. My understanding has always been that, if an agreement is in writing, it is much easier to prove, though not necessary proof that an agreement exists. Several people I know have admitted that a verbal agreement existed simply because it was the truth. These people wouldn't think of lying. It was called a matter of honor.

I believe that today, many feel they haven't committed to anything unless it's in writing. This makes it confusing for people like me who have always believed that a verbal commitment is as much a commitment as a written one. I don't mean to give the impression that a written confirmation isn't superior to a verbal one because of the misunderstandings that can result from verbal agreements.

A couple of years ago, a major hotel company canceled a verbal agreement with me that superseded a written agreement that both parties had agreed to change. One day I received a call from out of the blue that canceled the contract. I was told that the only valid one was the original, two-year, written contract that we'd verbally extended to four years for a price consideration. In other words, they didn't recognize the verbal change to which we had both agreed.

I was shocked that this company, which I admired greatly, would do something that I viewed as dishonest. Because I admired this company and its people so much, it is still hard to believe that this happened to me as a result of lowered ethical standards.

In addition to relaxed ethics, I have the impression that many hotel people and our customers stretch the truth more than they used to.

This matters because doing business in a world of high ethical values where all can trust each other is more enjoyable than wheeling and dealing in a world of low ethics and lack of trust.

When we can trust those we deal with, it saves us from having to check them out time after time. As my dad used to maintain, a business career where we don't trust or like our customers, competitors or co-workers would be miserable. We all must help restore standards to a high level on which we can agree.

Tom McCarthy, CHME, CHA, spent half his career with Hilton and Marriott in sales, advertising and public relations and half in his own training and consulting business, Hotel Professional Education and Consulting of Falls Church, VA. He is a past president of Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International (HSMAI) and is a member of the HSMAI Hall of Fame. He can be reached at ttmccarthy@cox.net or 703-931-0757.

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