Is honesty always the best policy?


I just got a new job! I'm really excited--by January, I should be in a position where my skills and abilities are utilized much more than they are right now. I've been biding my time, waiting for Jack Sparrow's proverbial opportune moment, and it finally came. I jumped on it, and I'm not looking back!

However, figuring out how to handle this situation was hard. I work at a university, and the new position is in a different department at the same school. I've enjoyed working where I am, but the more time I've spent here, the more I've felt underutilized and, more and more, unhappy. So, when I got a call from a former professor asking me if I was interested in applying for a position in her department, I was excited.

But what do I tell my boss? And my co-workers? And the people I know from work but don't work with directly? And the people I know who work in the department I'm moving to? And the people who have been waiting for a perfect position to open for me because they want me to work for them? When the process started, I felt like I walked around for a day or so, my mind buzzing with, "What in the world do I say?"

In the end, I chose a particular combination of transparency and discretion. I was open with my boss--he deserved to know, and he has been honorable and trustworthy enough in our interactions that it was safe. I knew he wasn't going to fire me for applying. I told a couple of my co-workers--one who needed to know before we moved on with a project, and one who I trust to keep his mouth shut. I didn't tell everyone else in my department until I knew I would be leaving because it wasn't necessary, I didn't feel like I needed to, and it didn't seem appropriate in our corporate culture. I told my friends from the department I was moving to, including another person interested in hiring me, though that was more a function of our personal relationships (friendships outside of work) than in a work context.

Why do I share all of this? Because it struck me today that I successfully navigated an often difficult issue, one that required disernment regarding our corporate culture, which individuals were trustworthy, and the different contexts in which I know my colleagues. Getting a new position isn't the only time these skils are necessary--they also come in handy when you're negotiating a raise, have made a big mistake, when you're having problems with a colleague, and a myriad of other situations. Here are three questions that helped me make some of these decisions.

1. How would you feel if you were in the position of the other person?

I decided not to tell my co-workers until I knew for sure about the job because I realized that I would feel awkward if they told me the same thing. I decided to tell my boss because I realized that I would want to know if I were in his position in this particular department.

2. Does your workplace have any spoken or unspoken rules about these things?

The rules, both spoken and unspoken, in my workplace are that we're pretty open about these things. To have not told anyone would have been seen and felt as sneaky or "under the table".

3. What do you want to do?

Seriously, what do you want? Does it matter to you that they might see you in a certain way, or that you might lose your job, or that someone might be extra-critical of you? Do you value your ironclad integrity more than anything else that might happen? These matter, sometimes more than anything else.


Good luck with the corporate navigational skills!

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Myscha Theriault's picture

You know, I have to say you struck a chord in me with the trust issue comment, Sarah. I often struggle with the who to trust thing, as well as when to start developing it. Aside from extreme or particularly unique and delicate situations, I usually err on the side of taking the trust risk first. Why do I do this? For many reasons, but one big one is that until someone takes the first step, no dialogue can begin. In new relationships, it has to start somewhere. Your situation was quite different, as you had several situations and individuals to navigate and make decisions about. Your reason / analysis list shows purity of thought and integrity in decision making. I commend you for finding a way to protect your interests while maintaining your ideals. Good job, and good post.

Guest's picture

As a manager myself, I think you handled it exactly right. There's rarely a one-size-fits-all answer to these questions; the smartest way to proceed depends on all the sorts of factors you identified and took into consideration. There are some offices where it's very risky to reveal this kind of thing before you have a firm offer in hand (reflective of a silly culture, in my opinion, but they're there nonetheless). And there are bosses like yours who you know you can be straightforward with. So it's important to know the culture you're in.

Congratulations on your new position!

Nora Dunn's picture

As with many people I imagine, this article rings true to many. Who do you tell? How much notice do you give? Who can you trust to tell early?

A bartender friend of mine tried to do the right thing and hand in his notice one month early as he's moving away. But now, he is being given all the crappy shifts at work, and all his hard work over his time at this job isn't being recognized. All the favours he did previously are forgotten. It has become so unbearable, I suspect he won't even last the month and will be forced to just quit and walk out.

One would argue that the service industry is too transient to give more than the minimum amount of notice, but he was trying to do the right thing, and give his boss a chance to hire and train his replacement in a market where it's hard to find good bartenders.

And by being honest, he is getting the short end of the stick.

I myself also recall telling a "trustworthy" individual of an imminent departure I was making from a corporate job many years ago, and by the time I officially handed in my notice, the whole office knew and it wasn't a pretty picture.

Guest's picture

Not on the topic of the article - but I was just in San Francisco for labor day and totally saw this guy at Fisherman's Wharf!

Same guy + same sign = time to get a job!

Guest's picture

As someone who also started a new job recently, I say congratulations. And I also say Brava on the way you handled the transition. Going from one department to another can be a difficult thing to navigate, so it sounds like you did it the "right" way. I had the opposite transition from my last job, as I was laid off after a company-wide restructuring, so I had to go around and let everyone know that I was let go. That also has it's interesting pitfalls too.

Congrats, and enjoy the new job!

Sarah Winfrey's picture

...though I hope the article also helped someone out ;0)

Guest's picture

at least people who give money knows that he's gonna spend it on beer instead of trying to believe the money is going to buy him some food, and when people give the money anyway, that means they are sincere

Guest's picture

I believe that honesty is always the best policy, but that is my personal ethical an moral code. To each his own.

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