by Ina Teves
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IS HONESTY ALWAYS
THE BEST POLICY?
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?
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
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.”
“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing
because he could only do a little.” – Edmund
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 firstname.lastname@example.org]