by Ina Teves

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Dear Ina,
Is honesty always the best policy? I've been taught and have always behaved accordingly, but certain incidents have made me think twice.

First, a colleague decided to take a test that would make him eligible for promotion in another department. He didn't make it, and that was that. Because he didn't want to hide anything from his boss, he told him so in the hopes that his boss would recognize and respect what was said in a spirit of trust. But the boss took it against him and since then had not spoken to him.

Second, another colleague broached the idea of having a part-time job to a boss whom thought he trusted because his present salary could not make ends meet. At first, the boss said that part-time rakets were ok. But when my colleague mentioned that he had been offered a consultancy, the boss hemmed and hawed, saying that his performance would suffer.
Both colleagues now are saying that honesty is not the best policy, as far as superiors are concerned.
Are they right?


Dear Jamie,

To use more direct language, you are asking: is honesty bad in situations where it is not rewarded with a pat on the shoulder?
I think the two situations above illustrate how dishonesty makes everyone miserable.

Your friend in Situation A is not entirely honest about his intentions in telling the boss about the eligibility test. The boss in Situation A is not being honest about why he is angry about what your friend did. Your friend in Situation B did right in asking permission to take on extra jobs, but his boss was not being honest about his fears regarding your friend’s decision to accept extra jobs. What you are seeing in the two situations are not the effects of honesty, but the effects of dishonesty.

There has to be a better way to go about the two situations described. Some of the handiest pointers I found were in an article by Laura Nash in the Harvard Business Review (Nov-Dec 1981), “Ethics without the Sermon.”

First, define the problem accurately. In the first situation, you’re friend’s real problem is not having about having to tell the boss about the eligibility test. The real problem is that your friend felt unrecognized, hence his taking the eligibility test. Has he tried taking it up with his boss or with HR? In the second situation, the problem really is how to show the boss that his performance will not suffer. The boss had already given his permission.

Second, how you would view the situation if you were the boss? In the first situation, the boss might have felt betrayed. Maybe the boss felt that he deserved to be told first. Perhaps now the boss is asking himself, “What else is this employee not telling me?” Or he could be asking, “Would my peers think less of me when they learn that one of my subordinates is trying to leave my department?” Or, he could also be asking, “Would this employee suddenly jump ship, thus handicapping my department?” In the second situation, the boss expresses this worry. One of the keys to corporate survival is managing the boss. Learn about his needs and see where you could help without prejudice to your values.

Third, see how this problem arose in the first place. Situation 1 came about because your friend did not agree with his boss’s performance appraisal and did not take it up with the boss or with HR. If he could tell his boss on hindsight, “in the spirit of respect and trust” that he had taken an eligibility test, then he could also have told his boss, out of the same “respect and trust” his own feelings about the performance appraisal. If he had, and there still were no agreement, your friend could take the test. Situation 1 may also be a result of the boss not explaining at length his plans for your friend, if any. Your friend still has to inform the boss because it would put everyone involved in a difficult situation had he passed the test. HR would have to tell the boss that your friend took the test and passed. The prospective boss would be in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether to take him in because your friend did not tell his soon-to-be-former boss about it.

Fourth, ask yourself, how would I explain this situation to my child if I had one? Should I just tell him that this is how the world works? Or will I be able to reason out my intentions without that nagging feeling that I am trying to wriggle out of something I am accountable for?

Fifth, be honest about your intentions and see whether the results of your intentions are beneficial to all concerned. In Situation 1, your friend’s intention was not to tell the truth, but to cover up in case the boss found out from someone else. Otherwise, why bring it up belatedly? In the second situation, there was no purpose to bringing up the offer of a consultancy, unless it was an indirect way of asking permission to spend less time at work. This is unfair to the company – you are expected to work according to the terms of your contract.

Sixth, what exceptions to this rule are acceptable? Do I make an exception to the rule on honesty based on my personal convenience? If this were the case, will I allow others to make exceptions to this rule based on their personal convenience? From what I have seen and experienced, for Situation 1, you do not need to tell the boss, if he has been unfair and has clearly closed all avenues for personal development in your department. In Situation 2, you have to show the boss that there will be no change in your performance. If you are utterly overworked and underpaid, you should actively look for another job and sign a less onerous contract.

The Rotarians got it right with the Four-Way Test: Is it the Truth? Is it Fair to all concerned? Will it build Goodwill and better Friendships? Will it be Beneficial to all concerned? Sounds idealistic, no? And yet, we expect others to relate to us precisely with truth, fairness, goodwill, friendship, consideration.

And so, two quotes for you in parting:

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” Mahatma Gandhi

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” – Edmund Burke


[Ina Teves is an organizational development consultant with a change management firm dedicated to making a difference wherever it goes by journeying with the client through the entire process of organizational transformation. Email your questions to]