Career / Getting Ahead

How Much Honesty Is 'Too Much' Honesty In The Workplace?

. 7 min read . Written by Vanshika Goenka
How Much Honesty Is 'Too Much' Honesty In The Workplace?

I was quite close to my bosses at my first job. I was 21; the company was a start-up, and I was their first-ever employee. As I got better at my job, I also started climbing up the ladder – a raise within the first three months, and a promotion on completing a year! I thought my bosses and I shared a great rapport, and that I could be honest with them. 

When our team expanded, I started to feel that some of my tasks were being taken away from me. The two girls who reported to me were now reporting to another colleague, and I wasn’t informed about it. I was left to do the operational work instead of the creative work I was hired to do. I decided to speak to my bosses about it. 

Upset, I sent them an email detailing every instance where I felt left out. I was positive that they would justify those changes and assure me that my position in the company wasn’t going to change.

Instead, they blamed me for not showing empathy because my boss’s father was ill.

From that moment on, neither of my bosses addressed me directly. They would communicate only through messages. I was an editor, and my job was to work closely with them – they still made sure not to speak to me unless absolutely necessary! Their passive-aggressive behaviour was too torturous for me to bear, and I left the organisation on a sour note.

Despite the work I had done for them, they grabbed a win one last time by writing in my experience letter that my performance was ‘satisfactory’.

As a brutally honest person who has made her fair share of mistakes, I have learned that honesty at work comes with a hidden asterisk: terms and conditions apply. 

Every company promises to be ethical, honest, and employee-centric, as these qualities can bring them success. But the ground reality is a little bit different. Given most companies’ inherently toxic culture and cutthroat competition, employees don’t feel comfortable being completely honest and transparent. Sometimes we’re too attached to our work, or we’re scared of being branded untrustworthy or tattletales. Being honest may seem too much of a risk; there’s often way too much at stake to choose the ‘right’ path.

(Continue reading below.)

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Advantages Of Practising Honesty In The Workplace

Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of books titled Influence and Pre-suation, has conducted several years of research to understand corporate culture. In one of his experiments, he asked two teams – team A and team B – to take a test on a computer. Team A’s leader told his team that they would lie about their test scores, saying they scored 80% instead of 67%. Team B declared their true score. In the next series of tests, team A scored 20% lower than team B. In conclusion, employees who are stressed about being dishonest tend to perform badly.

As my personal experience shows, it’s especially difficult to know where to draw the line when you’re a fresher. You’re inevitably looking out for mentors and seniors to help you navigate your new environment, so it’s tricky to know if you’re doing the right thing. 

Many companies today are trying to focus more on collaboration instead of competition and developing employee-centric policies. Regardless of that, being honest about work is never a bad thing, in hindsight. Whether you’re feeling unheard or uncomfortable at work or you want to discuss your performance or salary, being open and honest is valued when done right.

How to do it right? 

  1. Be non-judgmental. Give space to your colleagues to be honest about their thoughts and feelings. They will be able to trust you only if you leave your judgement aside.
  2. Have a plan of action. If there is a problem that you need to bring up, bring it up with a solution. You must know what the solution is, so that your boss knows you’re equipped to deal with the problem.
  3. Build trust in your colleagues. It’s important to have a small network of trustworthy people around you. Speak to people, connect with them, and build a rapport to have good allies at work.
  4. Hold yourself accountable. A problem is more likely to be taken seriously if you have some kind of proof. Ensure that you have it before you bring up the issue.
  5. Make a compliment sandwich. This tactic works wonders for most work-related situations. When you’re bringing up an issue, cushion it with positive points so it doesn’t hurt to hear. For example, if you want to tell your boss that you’re not getting substantial work, first speak about how wonderful your current project is. Then, slip in your complaint, and then end it with another positive aspect of your current project (or others). 

A company’s work culture inevitably defines how you’re going to navigate your job, but these pointers will help you stay truthful to what you believe in.

5 Situations Where You Shouldn’t Always Be Honest At Work

That said, there are situations where honesty isn’t well-received. These aren’t always in your control; it’s best to be diplomatic and practical. It’s not so much about being dishonest as it is about being smart – here are some situations where you should choose to be so. Take these with a pinch of salt, especially if you’re unsure of your company’s culture.

You’re dealing with a toxic boss

Here’s the thing about toxic bosses: They’re not here for you. Being honest about your situation is the least of their concerns. They simply want the work to be done; if not by you, then by anyone else. If you’re stuck with a toxic boss, it’s best not to bring up work-related woes, especially if they concern their working style or the projects they’re giving you. In an ideal situation, you must leave the toxic boss. If you can’t, here’s how you can deal with them.

You have a chance to complain about a colleague 

Hear me out. Of course, you must bring up a colleague’s interference if it’s getting difficult to work, but don’t do it because you’re angry. If you complain about your colleague without any head or tail of the situation, you’ll be deemed untrustworthy and unable to handle things in a positive manner. If you want to bring up an issue with a colleague, you must have some kind of proof that the issue is taking place. It’s best to bring up the issue with the colleague first; in the case that you cannot, you may take it to your supervisor.

You’re feeling undervalued in the organisation

Again, it’s absolutely important to make your boss known that you feel undervalued, but doing so directly isn’t the best way to approach the issue. This can ideally be brought up during your performance review. To make your point heard, make sure you’re ready with the data to prove how valuable you have been to the company thus far. You may even speak about the average salary of a person in your position and how you deserve to be paid the same. These points will make your case stronger.

Your project isn’t doing as well as you’d hoped 

Your boss is most likely to already know this, but what makes a difference is how you step up. Again, being 100% honest is not a good idea here – you must have a clear idea of what went wrong, what part you had to play in it, and how you plan on making the situation better. Come up with a concrete action plan. It’s always good to be sure of yourself when bringing up a tricky subject.

When you’re leaving the organisation and your feedback may hurt your future prospects

If your workplace or boss has been toxic, it’s natural to feel like you must speak your mind before you go. But if doing so can affect your chances of getting a job in the future, it’s best not to be brutally honest. Giving feedback is important, and you must speak your truth – just not in the way you’ve imagined. You may provide feedback in the form of actionable points – knowing that you’ve provided a solution can help you feel better.

Honesty at work is important, especially in a culture that doesn’t always value it. It isn’t an easy path; there’s fear and obstacles along the way that may make you feel like you’re not doing the right thing. But one must be honest in a way that is palatable

Have you ever had to be honest about something at work? How did you handle it? Tell us in the comments!

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