Is Honesty The Best Policy At Work?

Honesty is the best policy–at least that’s how the old adage goes.

But, there are times it can be too much of a good thing.

Being honest at work can backfire.  That doesn’t mean that stealing, lying on resumes, calling in sick when you’re not, or scamming customers and the like, is okay.

It means that honesty is not a black and white concept.  Hence, it can be tricky.  Sometimes, we think we are being honest, when we are actually demonstrating a lack of wisdom, or good judgment.

That’s because we have to make decisions about how and when to be honest. This requires the ability to think about what one wants to say before saying it, while considering the long and short term consequences of sharing ones thoughts.

For example, an internal applicant for a manager job was asked to describe times when he worked well with stakeholders.  He regaled the panel with stories about drinking heavily with community partners to create a solid relationship.

When he didn’t get the job and asked for feedback—he was told he lacked good judgment in his answers.  When the applicant realized the panel was unhappy with his story about entertaining stake holders, he commented that, at least he was being honest in the interview.

Another pitfall, when it comes to too much honestly, is when workers confuse being open and transparent, with a lack of discretion.  For example, a new recruit was asked why she left her old job.  She told her co-workers that she took the current position because their supervisors had a reputation for being lax compared to the managers at her previous company.

Another way to court disaster on the job, is thinking that people who are diplomatic in dealing with others, are beating around the bush or being inauthentic.

Instead, these workers and bosses use brutal honesty and destructive criticism, under the guise of “just being honest”. In fact, this kind of honesty is more about pointing out personal flaws in other people, than giving constructive feedback at work. It’s not inauthentic to be deft when discussing mistakes, errors or gaffs.

You can also get into hot water, if you think full disclosure is an honest way to make friends in the workplace.  You risk having your boss intervene, if you supply too much detail about your personal life while working.  In one case, a front end receptionist was pulled aside by her employer for talking about her weekend adventures clubbing and fights she was having with her boyfriend.

Revealing too much about your private life, isn’t being honest, it underscores a lack of appropriate boundaries between one’s personal and work life.

As well, some people believe being honest means providing long explanations and excruciating detail to colleagues when asked. The risk is you’ll be tuned out. If you find yourself making short stories long, it may indicate you are going overboard and need to scale back what you report.  Sometimes being overly honest results in not being listened to.

And, watch out for not thinking before you speak.  Some employees believe that if they think it, they should say it right away.  This is not always the case.  For example, a team lead was presenting a new product line to a group of managers. If they liked the product, they would take it forward to upper management.  As the meeting wound down, a manager in the group, who had advocated for the old product, asked how this new one improved on the prior best seller.

The team lead blurted out that the new product was much better and superior in every way.  She continued, saying that the new product should be first in line and it was a mistake to have put the previous one forward.  By giving an unconsidered and uncensored opinion, she undermined the new product line.  At the same time, her hasty reply, which seemed to lack of wisdom and diplomacy, served to limit her career advancement opportunities at the company.

Being truthful may be more difficult than it sounds at work.  Yet, practicing good judgment, discretion and diplomacy, helps workers avoid being tuned out by colleagues, not taken seriously by the boss, or getting a reputation for being indiscreet. Honestly.

Dr. Jennifer Newman is a registered psychologist and director of Newman Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development company.  Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.  Dr. Newman can be contacted at:

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