Honesty should be the only policy in the workplace

Many of our virtues are having a rough go of it these days. Patience has been battered by the Internet’s lightning-quick pace, and reality television and Facebook have largely eviscerated humility.

Also struggling: honesty.

There are many virtues important in the workplace, but I’m on record as placing honesty at or near the top. So it’s particularly dispiriting to see honesty and trustworthiness go widely disregarded, particularly at the highest levels of government.

On Aug. 12, the White House released a memo calling for the creation of a group to review the country’s surveillance programs. That was in response to leaks showing that the National Security Administration has been snooping on Americans more than previously believed.

In that memo, President Barack Obama writes that all of the group’s findings will come to him through the national intelligence director. That would be James Clapper, who is better known as “the guy who lied to Congress about whether Americans are being spied on.”

To be clear, Clapper was asked in March whether the NSA collects “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” He said, “No,” and then added that data might be collected “inadvertently” but not willingly.

That is what we in the honesty business would call a lie. And now the man who discredited himself is the conduit through which this presumably important review will be delivered to the president.

You may as well stamp that report “pre-distrusted.”

Thanks to this ham-handed decision, we have another high-profile example of dishonesty not being punished and trustworthiness being degraded. And sadly, this behavior trickles down.

“There is a prevailing cultural sentiment that lying is OK - the fact that everyone is doing it and that it’s necessary to get ahead,” said Nicholas Pearce, a clinical assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “The absence of honesty and integrity can have particularly paralyzing effects on individuals, teams and organizations, and even society.”

Michael Josephson, founder and president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles, said there are dozens of examples of high-profile lies – in business and in politics – that have gone virtually unpunished.

“We’re learning more in this society to operate without trust,” he said. “We’re skeptical of everything, and we assume people are lying about things. When you have a supervisor that you can completely trust, you have a different kind of relationship than if you have someone who’s going to say what’s expedient. It’s a sad thing that we have to be skeptical.”

That’s why this Clapper situation makes me so mad, though it’s only one of many examples of honesty not being valued. I don’t have a problem with the government keeping certain activities secret, and I think most Americans would agree. But if a government official can’t talk about something for national security reasons, just say so.

“I think there’s a difference between full disclosure and honesty,” Pearce said. “There’s reasonable understanding in the national consciousness that not every aspect of government can be reported. But when you tell the Congress something that is not evasive but factually inaccurate, that leaves a very different taste in the mouths of the general public than having to say, ‘I cannot disclose that.’ ”

It’s no different in business. Leaders have to tread carefully around certain topics, but that can be done without lying or even being particularly evasive. Trust people to understand that not everything can be out in the open, and there’s a good chance they’ll respect that.

“I tell leaders that it’s easier to maintain their integrity 100 percent of the time than it is to maintain their integrity 99 percent of the time,” Pearce said. “A leader’s capacity to be effective relies heavily on their social capital. Leadership is a relational license to exert influence. It’s the relational currency of fairness, respect and trust that can make or break a deal or partnership or promotion.”

Josephson said: “In the business place, there isn’t one situation where it’s morally justifiable to lie. And it’s not impossible. It’s not like you can’t be successful without lying. You can succeed. You can survive. And when people convince themselves of that, we’re all better off.”

And that’s the key. Leaders need to embrace what Pearce calls “radical truth telling.”

“Individuals pay close attention to the extent that their leaders adhere to their organization’s values,” he said. “Where leaders are embodying values and finding creative ways to equip the people in the organization to embody those values as well, people are a lot better off and more engaged. If a leader is serious about honesty and integrity, not only do they have to model that behavior themselves in an almost extreme fashion, they also have to make sure their hiring practices and promotion and retention plans are all geared toward rewarding honesty. The reality is you get the behavior that you reward, not just the behavior that you’re hoping for.”

At the end of the day, is it too much to ask that we be honest? That we set good examples for those who work for us or around us?

It’s a concept that’s reasonable, right and pragmatic. And if the people running our country don’t want to set that example for us, perhaps it’s up to us to set an example for them.

Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune.