Honesty Really Is the Best Policy, Especially at Work

Photo: Danny Choo

Admit it — sometimes you’re a little bit jealous of the super-rich. You know who we’re talking about — those guys with jets and luxury yachts and villas in the Mediterranean; who (we imagine) fiendishly rub their hands together as they hang $6,000 shower curtains, wash themselves with liquid gold, and pat themselves dry with crisp $100 bills. Sure, we all scoff at just how unnecessary billions of dollars are; we cringe at the excess. But there’s something else, too. A little bit of jealousy?

Sure, many of us wouldn’t turn away a fortune, but sometimes what we hear in the news makes it seem like it just isn’t possible to get there — at least not honestly. And to be perfectly frank, for most of us, it isn’t possible. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean that being dishonest is the way to the top. In fact, honesty is still the best policy — even in business. Here’s why. (See also: How to Get and Give Honest Feedback)

Honesty Means Credibility

If there’s one thing that can help you build a solid reputation, it’s being honest. If there’s one thing that can destroy it, it’s being caught in a lie. Whether you’re running a business or working for one, credibility is a major asset. When the truth is bad news (i.e. next year’s sales projections are looking bad), people don’t always want to hear it. But if you get a reputation for candor, even when the truth is crummy, people will tend to look to you for advice and believe what you say. Over time, that can make you a major source of power and influence among your colleagues and coworkers.

Being Straightforward Makes You a Better People Person 

No one likes to make mistakes, but what often happens is that in an effort to save face, you go around pretending that you’ve never made one in your life. And that makes you look like a jerk. The truth is, everyone makes mistakes, and admitting that you’re as flawed as everyone else is a way to earn the respect of others and form real connections with the people you work with. That’s something money can’t buy, and those relationships are investments that can pay off again and again, often years down the road. If something’s your fault, own up to it, face the music, and offer to make it right. You’ll look a lot more professional than you would getting caught in the act of covering it up. Plus, once it’s out in the open, you won’t have to spend time worrying about whether anyone will find out. (Now there’s something a lot of high-profile cheats learned the hard way.)

Being Authentic Makes You Accountable

The thing about lies is that they have a tendency to get out of control. The worst of it is, we don’t just lie to others, we also lie to ourselves. Lost money in the stock market? Blame the economy. That demotion at work? Someone else’s fault.

Fate does play a hand in the cards we’re dealt, but life doesn’t just happen to you; you’re an active and influential player. Excuses are like...well, you know. But the reason they’re so common is that we all make mistakes. Then we make excuses to cover them up. That’s pretty lame when you think about. Instead, be honest about who you are and how your actions impact your life and your career.

Honesty Is a Culture

Whether you’re the CEO or on the absolute lowest step of the corporate ladder, your success will always depend on others to some degree. If you lie, cheat, gossip about other people, or steal credit for things you haven’t done, you won’t find yourself with a lot of allies. This is why pariahs — even powerful ones — don’t tend to stick around for long. Rather than stepping on others to work your way to the top, collaborate with them to build something better. That means listening to other people, acknowledging their achievements, and giving credit where it’s due, rather than hogging the limelight. Will it get you to the executive suite? Maybe, maybe not. What it will do is leave you with a body of work you can proud of.

You’ll Find Your Boundaries at the Edge of the Truth

Telling the truth is hard because it often involves making ourselves vulnerable. If you ask for a promotion, you might be turned down. If you turn in a coworker for breaking the rules, you might be labeled a snitch. If you speak your mind, everyone else might disagree. The trouble is, if you choose not to speak up, you’ll never know how these things would play out, in which case the truth becomes a boundary in your career, your personal development, and your life. If you’ve ever withheld something you really needed to say, you know that just like telling a lie, withholding the truth can drag you down like a lead weight.

One caveat though — use honesty to a point and with tact; it should never be a cover for hostility, passive-aggressiveness, and hurtful behavior. Being honest can open many doors, but only if you use it with good intentions. It’ll also allow you to spend a lot less time wondering “what if?”

You Never Get Caught

Mark Twain once said that if you tell the truth, you won’t have to remember anything. Telling the truth leaves you with nothing to run from; it gives you longevity. In the business world, that’s worth a lot. And while being the good guy might seem like the long path to success, the difference is that you’ll be able to enjoy whatever spoils you get fully, without fear or guilt. Honesty, then, is a bit like an investment that compounds over time. It may take longer to see the payout, but you’ll be able to feel good about being on the right track.

So here’s the truth — being dishonest often does pay...at least until it doesn’t. But despite all the riches that lying has wrought, for most of us, it just isn’t a risk worth taking. Especially when honesty pays all the time, even if it’s only to yourself.

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Guest's picture

I agree 100%, however sometimes being honest can hurt you. I have a blip on my background from being young and stupid at 18. I do not mention it unless specifically asked by HR or an employer. I have paperwork proving the charges were dropped but being honest has resulted in me not being hired at several key places I wanted to work.

Guest's picture

I'm always honest at work. It's something that I pride myself on. When I get asked a question and I don't know the answer, I don't give a round-about answer. I tell my co-worker or the client that I don't know, but I'll find out and get back to them. It's much easier doing this than saying something that you aren't sure is true then having to explain yourself to the client.

Guest's picture

Definitely agree with everything in this post. Honesty is the only policy when it comes to almost everything in life. If you lose your credibility in business because of one stupid lie, you never know how far that will carry and how many opportunities can be lost because of it. Never having to worry about covering up your tracks is freedom.