In-Depth

Honesty in the Workplace

You can influence the honesty of those around you, or at least understand the causes that lead people to be less than truthful.

The office brings together a variety of people with different backgrounds and attitudes. You would like to think that you share fundamental values with your colleagues because a shared foundation of values makes good teamwork possible. One of the most important of these values is honesty—you deal with your colleagues forthrightly and expect the same treatment in return.

Human nature, being what it is, often proves this assumption wrong. A friend of mine who works in technical sales half-jokes that he limits himself to a maximum of three lies per day, while also acknowledging that one of these lies may be his statement. Unfortunately, you may be in for an unpleasant surprise if you expect a straightforward answer to a simple question.

Software developers tend to be guileless individuals. You not only speak your mind honestly, but you also don't think to prevaricate under most circumstances. For example, I'd like to lie in some situations, but the neon sign on my back keeps flashing, "He's lying." This sign simply reflects my real belief that people can immediately tell when I am less than honest.

After years in the workforce, you're aware that not everyone you work with takes a direct approach to honesty. Whether through fear, dissatisfaction, personality, or intent, people may be more inclined to lie than to tell the truth. So, how do you deal with people who have demonstrated their lack of integrity time and time again? Further, you want to deal with dishonest coworkers without making them look like the aggrieved party to your team and to management?

First don't assume that your colleague is spreading lies or disinformation. It is often a necessary skill to be able to give an encouraging answer to a question that ultimately has negative outcome. My technical sales friend is among the first to tell customers that his solution isn't right for their companies' needs, but in many cases he simply doesn't know the outcome until he first tries to provide a solution. In other words, give people the benefit of the doubt if possible. What you term "dishonest" may simply be another point of view.

Second take a look at some of the reasons why coworkers might lie. Some reasons are innocent, or at least not malicious. For example, colleagues may lie to avoid confrontation or facing an unpleasant truth. Often speaking the truth means having to deal with consequences that are painful, difficult to comprehend, or require a lot of work.

Dishonesty that isn't malicious is the easiest with which to deal. You can set expectations among your management, peers, and subordinates that problems are best uncovered and resolved in a direct fashion. The pain and maintenance of sweeping ongoing problems under the rug until they become too big to ignore far exceeds the effort required to deal with them immediately.

You must also set expectations that problems, and even failure, are acceptable if resolved forthrightly. Often coworkers aren't truthful because they perceive a greater downside to the truth than to the falsehood. The saying "punish the messenger" applies here, in that the one who speaks honestly about problems is often perceived as being the problem. You can help correct this misconception by taking reports of issues seriously and thanking the coworker who first brings it to your attention.

Third you may be dealing with an individual who is a compulsive liar. In my career I've had to deal with two or three colleagues who would tell a lie in response to an innocuous question that could easily be proven otherwise. They didn't consider that they could give me a truthful answer.

This type of behavior is a mental illness, referred to as a psychopathology. Sociopaths don't interact with other people appropriately in some circumstances, yet they still functions well enough so that they rarely seek formal treatment. In many cases sociopaths excel at particular aspects of their work and are generally valued team members.

Because you are likely not a mental health professional, you should not try to change this behavior. Your best bet is to accept your colleague's fault and try to compensate for it when it affects you. For example, confirm any information from your dishonest coworker with a second source within the company before acting on it.

Last, you may discover some forms of lying behavior in the office are the most malicious kind. For example, your questionable coworker's agenda is different and conflicts with the team agenda, or your coworker's personality drives dishonesty and duplicity and creates conflicts amongst team members.

Colleagues who maliciously lie are likely to possess deeper issues than you are equipped to handle. Nonetheless, it can be valuable to come to an accommodation with them. If you have an understanding of their issues, you may be able to work with them as an honest broker rather than an enemy. You can outline your team goals privately to your dishonest coworker and attempt to secure agreement that the goals don't conflict with your coworker's agenda. Of course, your coworker may be less than truthful with you during this discussion, and you may have to demonstrate your allegiance to team goals through your actions over time.

No matter what your position in the IT or software development organization, you have limited ability to shape the culture and perspective of your team. Your managers, peers, and subordinates have their own influences on the organization. But you have an advantage. Even if you are not in a leadership position, you can lead by example. Be honest and respectful in your dealings with all. Do not assign blame, but look for solutions. When issues arise, settle them equitably. You'll be amazed at how much good your actions can do in shaping the culture of your group.

About the Author

Peter Varhol is the executive editor, reviews of Redmond magazine and has more than 20 years of experience as a software developer, software product manager and technology writer. He has graduate degrees in computer science and mathematics, and has taught both subjects at the university level.

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