Losing isn't fun. But it can be done gracefully and without shame. At least a few people at the Cadillac Div. of General Motors Corp. needed to learn that lesson the hard way.

The company has "disciplined" a number of employees (no word on how many) who manipulated December sales figures so that Cadillac would come from behind to beat Lincoln as the top luxury nameplate in the U.S. for 1998. GM isn't saying whether any workers were fired.

An internal audit shows Cadillac pumped up its December sales by 4,773 units - 2,103 Escalades, 167 Eldorados, 2,243 DeVilles, 121 Sevilles and 139 Cateras - in order to edge Lincoln by 222 vehicles for the sales crown. Cadillac General Manager John F. Smith sent a letter of apology to Ford Motor Co. Lincoln-Mercury Div. President Mark Hutchins, although the company says the division chief had nothing to do with the hoax.

"Winning in the marketplace obviously is very important to us, but nothing is more important than our integrity," says Roy S. Roberts, group executive in charge of GM North American Vehicle Sales, Service and Marketing.

Says Mr. Hutchins: "This admission by Cadillac exemplifies the integrity we've always said is the basis for a luxury brand. It is another example of what makes this rivalry so great."

The whole episode could have been avoided if the perpetrators paid attention to GM's internal "Winning with Integrity" handbook for employee conduct. In it, Chairman and CEO John F. Smith Jr. beseeches employees to "do what is right ... use good judgment in all that we do" and "communicate in a forthright and honest way, free from any misleading or inaccurate information."

In all honesty, there's always some hocus-pocus involved in year-end sales reports, but GM's admission is unprecedented and a stain on the reputation of a division that should be worrying about a lot more than beating Lincoln: namely, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus.