Yes, you have permission to be honest


May I speak honestly?”

“To tell you the truth ...”

“Well, to be honest ...”

All of the above are phrases that make me wonder if the speaker’s preceding statements were nothing but lies. Based on one of those human interests surveys I read recently, probably about half of what we are told each day falls somewhere between misleading or just plain false.

The workplace is a setting where people are sorely tempted to be dishonest. When everyone is competing for the boss’s approval it is difficult to know who to trust. A good number of people butter-up the boss with a lot of insincere compliments and do their best to put themselves in a favorable light. These are the “yes men” and apple polishers.

Others try to damage a co-worker’s reputation by shifting blame or misrepresenting who did what. Some people feign forgetfulness or assert that they weren’t told to do something. These slippery eels of the office are hard to catch and pin down.

Most of us will tell a co-worker he did a good job rather than point out problems. Avoiding a difficult conversation because you are busy or just hoping someone else will look bad — neither motivation is good for the business. Passive dishonesty is damaging and difficult to root out.

How do we increase honesty in the workplace? Over the years I had to develop methods of smoking out the “yes men,” eels and passive avoiders. Here’s a few of my techniques:

Show me your work. If an employee is trying to avoid blame, is full of excuses to explain incomplete work or is claiming credit he probably isn’t due, ask him to show you his work. With just a few questions things will become clear.

The goal is to move past the excuses, stop blaming others and have an employee demonstrate what he did or didn’t do. It may surprise the employee(s) the first time a supervisor does this, and it will take a bit of time. But the truth is in the details.

Example requests:

“Tell me (or show me) how you did this work.”

“Tell me what you have done so far — and why you are stuck. Let me see if I can help.”

“I have looked over your co-workers’ work, now show me what you contributed to the project.” “What made you think of this idea?”

There is no need to act like a prosecutor; just be a supervisor and take 30 minutes to look and listen carefully to an employee’s explanation of how he does his job. If you hear a lot of “Joe told me to …” or, “This is what Keith gave me,” you know the employee can’t or doesn’t want to do his own work. As an employee walks you through his work process and explains his thinking you will see exactly what he can do.

Tell me what you really think. It is well-known that if you want to be liked, be agreeable. Reflect back a person’s opinions and they will see you as bright and enjoyable. But flattery and telling the boss what he wants to hear doesn’t help the boss. (e.g., “The Emperor has No Clothes.”)

Want to know if your co-workers or employees will give you an honest opinion? Give them something with flaws in it and see what they say. Don’t accept generalizations — “Looks good to me” isn’t helpful. Ask for feedback on a few specific points and see if you get thoughtful answers.

If you want constructive criticism to be part of the culture in your workplace, demonstrate how to give and accept criticism and suggestions. Debate the pros and cons with an open mind and thank the person who points out flaws and mistakes.

Write it down. Arguments about who was supposed to do what and who did what don’t need to happen if people just put things in writing. A short email or note on work assignments followed up by status reports showing who did what — available for all to see — can put an end to a lot of finger pointing and arguments.

Who should you trust? The person who isn’t full of excuses, who does what he says he is going to do and tells you when he has made a mistake. The person who doesn’t bristle at criticism but asks for suggestions or guidance. The person who is happy to share credit and willing to take the blame.

I believe that if the boss makes it safe for employees to admit mistakes — and admits to his own mistakes — the workplace will be better for it. No need to waste time wondering who is lying and who is telling the truth.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at or phone at 509.529.1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.

Performance evaluation workshop

Who is great? Who is good enough? Who needs to go? Learn how to create performance goals and talk to employees about job performance.

Virginia Detweiler will conduct a workshop Nov. 21 from 8 a.m. – noon at the Walla Walla Best Western. Agenda and registration details can be found online at or call 509-529-1910. Registration by Nov. 19 is required. Workshop fee: $89.


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