Honesty at work: Why it’s important and what it looks like

We’ve all heard the saying “Honesty is the best policy.” But, is this adage still worth clinging to in the modern work environment? Stories of unethical behavior seem to be around every corner. Might dishonesty, especially when it provides an advantage to the bottom line, really not be so terrible?

Smart leadership teams do not give credence to the childish reasoning “Everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t we?” They realize that what may at first appear harmless could cause quite a mess.

The importance of honesty

Organizations that fail to include honesty among their company values set themselves up for a variety of potential problems. On the flip side, honest environments set the stage for some great things to happen. Let’s take a look.

Toxic company culture vs. a healthy workplace culture

Dishonesty tends to breed more dishonesty. A lack of standards can contribute to a bad work ethic, stealing, lying, and other poor decision-making by employees. Teamwork can suffer, too. Acting as a cohesive unit becomes difficult without honest communication and trust. Also, when workers feel they are getting a snow job from management, they fill in “correct” information themselves. Rumors and gossip abound.

When honesty reigns, relationships thrive. Workers do not waste time second-guessing each other or worrying about what those in positions of power are hiding from them. The general well-being of the office improves as individuals respect their inner voice and act accordingly.

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Damaged public perception vs. positive image

There’s a reason why the Houston Astros continue to be booed when visiting other ballparks. Baseball fans remember the team’s 2017 cheating scandal. Scarred reputations prove hard to repair. A bad incident makes others question your trustworthiness going forward. People tend to include truthfulness and fairness among their core values. Disregard for these things hurts your brand and could cost customers.

Alternatively, knowing that an organization is “the real deal” attracts interest. People feel good about supporting trustworthy companies. They believe ads and claims. They speak well of you to others, driving more business your way.

Difficulty attracting and retaining employees vs. increased loyalty

Especially during periods of low unemployment, workers can be choosy. Dishonest employers are not particularly attractive. Job candidates may run in the other direction when they learn about a potential employer’s questionable practices through social media or their own LinkedIn network. Pressure on current employees to lie, keep quiet, or engage in something counter to their conscience contributes to burnout, absenteeism, and quitting. Besides the internal conflict, one’s own reputation suffers from guilt by association. Nobody wants that sort of blemish on a resume.

Being known for integrity in the workplace catches the eyes of prospective applicants. It makes them feel more positive toward your employee brand. It helps them believe that you will fulfill the experience promised during the recruitment process. Existing employees vouching for the company’s honest behavior strengthens the case. And feeling good about the employer being transparent and truthful contributes to better retention.

Legal repercussions vs. preventing problems

Knowingly releasing harmful new products. Fudging tax returns. Hiring illegal workers. Covering up instances of sexual harassment. These are just some examples of dishonest behavior that could land a company in hot water. Lawsuits, fines, and other penalties definitely are not something any organization wants.

Honesty goes a long way toward sticky situations never happening. Workers who feel comfortable speaking up when they notice a potential problem may stop it from ever occurring. Employees with the integrity to say “no” when asked to do things that compromise their standards help those around them find similar strength.

Promoting an atmosphere of honesty

Understanding the importance of honesty is step one. Step two is fostering it throughout your business. The following ideas can assist.

Make it part of your mission statement

Leave no doubt that honesty is a core value. Tout honesty from day one of onboarding, and repeat the message regularly.

Don’t mislead applicants

Watch what you tell or promise job candidates. Write an accurate job description that truly captures responsibilities. Present a clear, unembellished path to advancement. Highlight positive aspects of your company culture, but avoid stretching the truth. (The one office pizza party you had 18 months ago does not count as regularly getting together for food and socialization.) Actions during this particularly impressionable stage of employment can make or break how much employees trust you.

Encourage internalization

Help employees develop the mindset that their honest actions add to the organization’s overall success. Remind them of their role in maintaining confidentiality. Ask that they speak up when they notice potentially dishonest behavior. Discuss how honesty builds customer loyalty and enhances brand image.

Start at the top

Employees will mimic what they observe, so leaders must be good role models. If you lie to customers, so will they. If you falsify information on reports, why shouldn’t they? And if you steal all the credit for something well done, what sort of message does that send?

Show appreciation

Applaud genuine efforts and achievements. Employees will feel less of a need to embellish their performance to grab your attention when they already feel noticed. And pay people what they are worth. Fair compensation makes them less likely to “make up” their salary through dishonest means such as fudging numbers on expense reports, padding timesheets, or stealing office supplies.

Watch how you handle mistakes

Bosses who throw a fit or embarrass someone over an error set the stage for workers to cover up anything wrong. Calmly treating mistakes as learning experiences allows people to come forward and grow. Admit your own mistakes, too.

Create psychological safety

Do you say you want people to speak their minds but shut down dissenters? Increase innovation and problem-solving by valuing honest communication. Great things happen when workers know they will receive support for being their true selves. Seek honest thoughts, and question “yes men.”

Teach people how to give and receive honest feedback

Yes, telling Gladys that you like her new hairdo is a perfectly acceptable white lie to not hurt the 60-something receptionist’s feelings. But watch that fear of stepping on toes is not hindering your team’s performance. Talk with your staff about the value of honest feedback delivered in a professional, respectful manner. Likewise, discuss how everyone needs to be open to hearing truths because that is how we all improve and grow. Training in emotional intelligence can help team members become better at this give-and-take.

Punish wrongdoers

Clearly state in your employee handbook that dishonest behavior will not be tolerated. Call out unacceptable actions, and follow through with your stated disciplinary procedures. Letting things go tells guilty parties you do not really care about honesty. Incidents may increase. And to make matters worse, ignoring it makes truthful employees angry and less inclined to stay “good.”

Provide clear paths to report information

Make all people at the company partners in creating an honest environment. The employee handbook should state the proper channels for notifying human resources or another department about safety issues, witnessed theft, improper behavior, and the like. Knowing where to turn and that the information will be taken seriously promotes action. It also can help, too, to offer anonymous outlets for those hesitant to speak up.

Don’t tempt

Finally, while their own principles keep many individuals from acting dishonestly, there’s no reason not to take easy steps to discourage bad behavior. Do background checks before hiring. Provide new employees with non-disclosure agreements to sign. Limit access to confidential files to only those who truly need it. Eliminate low-hanging fruit!