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iOn the Contrary-i The Truth Shall Set You Free

December 1, 1998
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The first time I told the truth at work, I got fired. My boss, a burnt-out, 40-something man with permanent scotch-induced facial redness, had been spending more time at “client meetings” with the new brunette employee than he spent at the office.

At first, we made excuses for him. But as complaints from customers increased, the workplace tension got so thick employees seemed to stop moving. We became like wooden Indians, staring straight ahead and refusing to acknowledge the complete breakdown of morale, productivity and trust.

Believing he should know about the problems caused by his absence, I asked my boss for a private meeting. He agreed, politely listened, thanked me for clarifying the situation, and fired me two weeks later.

OK, so I was naive. But give me a break -- it was my first full-time job and I hadn’t learned you’re not supposed to tell the truth about such things.

Lying is a corporate institution.
Anyone who has been gainfully employed for any amount of time knows all about the overwhelming pressure not to speak the truth at work. We avoid, distort, misrepresent and, yes, out-and-out lie more frequently than any of us want to admit. There are little white lies (“Great shoes, Madge”), ongoing delusions (“The customer is always right”), and major whoppers (“The restructuring will not affect employment levels”). In fact, several years ago a study of 40,000 Americans revealed a stunning 93 percent of us regularly and consciously lie at work, according to The Day America Told the Truth (Prentice Hall, 1992) by James Patterson and Peter Kim. We do it to preserve our image, to be polite, to protect our jobs and because often we assume the truth will make a bad situation worse.

I know what you’re saying: “Not me.” Holding a hand over your heart, you proclaim to be a person of integrity. After all, you’re in human resources. But think about your first reaction to some situations HR professionals typically face on a daily basis.

When the young applicant with a neck tattoo and nasal piercings phones to ask why he didn’t get the onsite customer service job, do you tell him it was because of his appearance? Or, rolling your eyes at your secretary, do you opt to tell him there were other applicants with “more experience”?

At a team meeting, someone proposes a preposterous idea to train the workforce to speak Gaelic. You’re just about to disagree when you notice everyone around you is smiling and nodding their heads in unison like a line of drum majorettes in a parade, repeating the words, “Great idea,” in a maddening continuous loop. When asked, do you voice your dissenting opinion or find yourself mumbling a barely audible, “Sounds great”?

And what about all those times the boss has asked for your input on how others in the company view him? Do you swallow hard and divulge the fact that people think he’s a sniveling, spineless milquetoast? Or is it easier to shrug your shoulders and feign ignorance?

Truth telling should be the millennium’s mantra.
Let’s face it: Situational forces exert pressure on all of us at one time or another to avoid the truth. But there’s a way to alleviate this pressure -- by telling the truth all the time, no matter what.

Hello? Are you still with me? I know the idea of telling the truth may seem pretty radical to anyone who’s worked hard for his or her corporate stripes. But not telling the truth can be far more damaging, especially to HR people.

For HR professionals to become respected members of the management team they have to be willing to speak the truth no matter how difficult or unwelcome it may be. Instead of wimping out under pressure, you have to be willing to take sides and substantiate your point of view. Your job isn’t to be liked -- it’s to be effective, and sometimes that means saying what others are unwilling to say.

Believe it or not, the notion of truth telling isn’t just a nice idea, it’s actually becoming a movement. It began two years ago with Brad Blanton’s book, Radical Honesty (Dell Publishing, 1996), which advocates a take-no-prisoners approach to truth telling. More recently, there has been What is the Emperor Wearing? Truth Telling in Business Relationships by Laurie Weiss (Butterworth-Heinemann, 1998). These authors and a growing underground of consultants believe truth is what’s missing in today’s complex society.

So if you’re mad at the boss, tell her. If the budget is unrealistic, say so. If employees want to know how restructuring will affect their jobs, tell them. The key, according to honesty experts, is to tell the truth compulsively, immediately, repeatedly and tactfully. While it may pinch at first, it does get easier. And although people may not always like what they hear, they will come to trust you.

Is there any situation in which it’s okay to lie? Very few. If you’re gay and in the military, if Anne Frank is hiding in your attic or if your pregnant wife asks about her appearance, it’s probably reasonable to stretch the truth. Otherwise, give it to ’em straight and let the jaws fall where they may.

“I’ve been coaching people to do this for 25 years,” Blanton explains. “Ninety-nine percent of them don’t get fired and more than 60 percent of them have actually gotten a promotion.”

In an absurd way, I’m flattered to learn that I’m a member of an elite group of truth tellers who have gotten fired for their actions. But even for me, telling the truth was the right thing to do. Losing my job allowed me to make a much-needed correction in the course of my career. It’s true what they say: The truth will set you free.

Workforce, December 1998, Vol. 77, No. 12, pp.19-21.

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