• Barbara L. Ciccarelli, PhD

Is There Such a Thing as Being Too Honest at Work?: Try a Little PR

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

Have you ever been too honest in a situation and gotten less than desirable results? When is standing on principle not the most appropriate reaction in life, school or work? What is the difference between the truth and just good PR?

I have a specific work example in mind from years ago. I was a Marketing Assistant in a Marketing Department of a company in the Mid-West. I helped with proofreading, writing copy and completing competitive market price analyses and other kinds of reports. I reported to the Marketing Manager but also the CEO himself.

I loved working there because my colleagues were so nice, and I enjoyed the work. Furthermore, the Marketing Manager really made a point of befriending me, inviting me to private gatherings of her own for instance.

Things went smoothly for two years and then at the end of the second year the CEO decided to try a different performance review process. This process involved the employee having to fill out a 2 or 3 page form with a number of questions. One of these questions was--what do you do in your position? Another question was basically--why should we keep you?--though not in so many words.

I had never filled out a form like this before, and I don’t think I was thinking of purpose or audience when I filled it out. I was more committed to standing on principle and being honest. Maybe subconsciously I thought the reward for honesty would weigh heavier than the actual information provided.

I remember that when it was my turn to meet with the CEO for the review meeting, he said matter of factly, “Well, I agree with you.” Now, normally that would be a good thing, but in this case I had written in my report that I didn’t have enough work to fill my paid hours and the Marketing Manager could probably do most of my job by herself.

My stay with this company was very short after that. Now my memory is sketchy, but I have no bad feelings so to be honest I must have left on good terms, probably because my future teaching job coincided with leaving the company job. If the two things were connected then I might have had a ‘nothing to lose’ attitude and just spoke my truth, but this goes against everything you are told about making yourself indispensable to your employer to ensure retention.

Now I’m not saying I should have lied in the performance review and said things that weren’t true. But I could have been more creative and thought through ways in which I was useful to my manager and to the CEO as well and, more importantly, ways in which I could be more useful in the future. The sky would have been the limit as this was a budding competitor on the market domestically, and I could have speculated, would soon be internationally (and it was later). Having some staff already in place for this expansion would come in handy I could have argued.

I can only guess that I was distracted--my mind wasn’t focused on the opportunities available at this company because the job was just a side hustle to my real career pursuit—teaching.

There are pros and cons to being too honest. If you are too honest, people who are fragile won’t seek you out when they need comfort. However, on the bright side, Alex Lickerman, M.D. writes, “Imagine developing a reputation for tactful but complete honesty upon which others know they can always rely.” Now that is something to strive for with an occasional dose of PR.

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