How Honest Is Your Office?

Could it ever be legal to administer sodium pentothal, otherwise known as truth serum, to your workforce (including managers and executives)? How about if they signed informed consent forms first? My guess is it wouldn’t be legal, or ethical, under any circumstances. And the same goes for the kind of lie detector tests law enforcement uses. So, then how do you cultivate an honest workforce? Is there such a thing as establishing a culture of honesty?

An Australian news site brought the need for honesty in the office to mind with a piece on “The Worst Workplace Lies.” The piece explores the need for verification when a manager tells you something that you wouldn’t think anyone would lie about, like whether or not an upcoming business trip is cancelled because “the CEO said to cancel the trip.” The reality, I suppose, would be that the boss doesn’t want the employee to take the trip, but not because of the company, but because he doesn’t want the employee distinguishing himself, or otherwise becoming competition. Competition is one of the primary reasons bosses lie to their employees, and why employees lie to their peers. Is there any way to build enough trust and mutual admiration that these lies are not so tempting? I’ve heard of teambuilding exercises in which co-workers are forced to endure outdoor obstacle courses, cooking contests, or do volunteer work together, but I doubt any of those activities would create a trusting, honest team.

I think what makes people honest, and genuinely respectful of one another, is being placed in mutually dependent arrangements in which everyone is metaphorically chained together so that if one goes over the railing of the bridge, she takes everyone with her. I could see how that sounds like a bad idea because who wants one errant employee to drag everyone down with her? But making the outcome dependent equally on each person on the team ensures success by eliminating the need to undercut co-workers, subordinates, and managers. Here’s how it could work: The manager is evaluated not just on how well he is perceived to do his own job, but on the progress and performance of his direct reports. If his direct reports are languishing in the same positions for years with no obvious progress made, then the manager is docked points off his performance review, and his own progress at the company is limited. Similarly, each employee in the work group would be given two overall evaluation scores. One would relate to the person’s own performance, and the other would relate to how the overall group is doing. These two scores would be weighted evenly, so that a high performer in a faltering group would not have the same opportunities for advancement as a high performer in a group that is soaring. In this arrangement, co-workers would band together to make sure the whole group did well, and if there were an intractably inferior member of the group, the other members of the group would make sure that person was removed. To give it added meaning, also tie pay raises—not just eligibility for promotion—to the overall performance of the group. Does your company do anything like this? What are some other ways you can prevent the competitiveness behind so many workplace lies?

Another thing that causes workplace lies is a feeling of discomfort at being the bearer of bad news. If it’s up to a department manager to decide whether his group gets raises this year, and he has the discretion to go either way, but feels giving the raises would put too much financial strain on the department, it’s easier to blame it on the CEO. It’s much harder to say: “I’m grateful for the tremendous work you’ve all put in this year, and so grateful to have you as part of our team, but after careful consideration, I’ve determined that we won’t be able to raise salaries this year. I’ll re-evaluate six months from now, and in the meantime, we can talk about other ways to recognize your strong work performance.” It’s a tough message to communicate, but if you have an honest relationship with your staff, it’s feasible, and feasible without resentment because the employees would trust their boss enough to know that if it were at all possible, it would give him great joy to give them raises. How can managers be taught to foster that kind of trust with their employees? My guess is only a proven track record of showing they care about employees’ careers and wellbeing. In my own situation, as I’ve written, I would not (and don’t) trust my boss when he relays these kinds of messages.

Misrepresenting, or under-representing, your workplace qualifications are another common form of dishonesty pointed out in the article. One thing I’ve been guilty of myself is not arguing with my manager, even when I know he’s going wrong, or speaking from a place of ignorance. I don’t argue because I don’t have the psychological energy to argue with a person who is too arrogant to admit he’s wrong. But another reason employees in that situation don’t argue is because they enjoy seeing their boss make a fool of himself. As fun as that can be, an important part of creating an honest workforce is training managers to remain humble, and to make showing what they don’t know a sign of strength and confidence, rather than a source of shame. So many managers, and even lower-level employees, are ashamed to admit when they don’t know something. With all my insecurities, I’ve never suffered from the fear of admitting ignorance. How can companies train humility in managers, while also selecting managers who are secure enough with themselves to admit there’s still a lot they need to learn?

How honest is your workforce? How do you create an environment in which employees are dependent on one another, and genuinely have one another’s best interests at heart?


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