5 Ways to Tell the Absolute Truth at Work, Even When It’s Awkward

Fibs at work can short-circuit a career and undermine a team, but telling the truth can be tricky. Experts explain how to tell the truth artfully.


Everyone knows they shouldn’t lie — but everyone does.

In fact, about 60 percent of people lie at least once, with the majority lying two to three times, during a 10-minute conversation, according to research by University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert S. Feldman published in the Journal of Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

But aren’t lies needed to succeed in business? No. In fact, they could be preventing you from moving ahead, note executive coaches, HR managers and other businesspeople.

“The truth shall set you free is really frankly true,” says New York Times best-selling author Dave Kerpen, the CEO of LikeableLocal, New York. “There is a power behind honesty that is unlike anything else. Obviously there are smart ways to be truthful and less smart ways to be truthful.”

And to veer off the path can actually undermine an entire company, explains Rebekah Campbell, chief executive of Posse, writing in the New York Times small-business blog “You’re the Boss.“As the director of a respected nonprofit that was foundering, she discovered that a group leader was lying.

“Not whoppers, but a series of tales about why he was late, why someone could not make a meeting or why emails had not been read. I confronted him and he justified his lying, saying that it avoided unpleasant consequences,” she wrote.

“It was obvious why our team wasn’t working: People didn’t trust each other. The result was a culture of obfuscation and backstabbing.”

But truthfulness is difficult, says Campbell, who opted to become more transparent as a result of uncovering the nonprofit leader’s fibs. Powering through what Campbell deemed the embarrassment and vulnerability of telling the truth has resulted in many positives for herself and her team. Consider these pointers on artful truth-telling in these potentially sticky situations:

1. What if you need to deliver some unpleasant criticism?

Photographee.eu / Shutterstock.comPhotographee.eu / Shutterstock.com

To move toward greater transparency — and greater success — Kerpen and other business leaders recommend mixing positive with negative.

“If you are going to criticize, start with the positive, then the criticism or bad news, and then conclude with honest praise,” says Kerpen, author of “The Art of People: 11 Simple People Skills That Will Get You Everything You Want,” in describing what he calls the “praise sandwich.” “You can be both honest and effective at the same time.”‘

Putting such a system of honesty in place requires finesse and careful wording, though. To understand how it works, consider these scenarios and how business leaders recommend they be handled:

2. What if your boss asks whether you dislike him or her?

Photographee.eu / Shutterstock.comPhotographee.eu / Shutterstock.com

Response: Jackie Kellso, president of Pointmaker Communications, New York, privately asked that question of someone who reported to her and who would loudly sigh, cross her arms and roll her eyes when the two worked together. The woman denied there was an issue but became outwardly respectful, continued her excellent work and stayed on Kellso’s team for two years. “I would have wished her to tell me the truth because it would have opened up a more honest conversation and given her a voice in this dialog,” said Kellso. “I always vote for transparency as a mode of communicating. That kind of sharing builds trust and respect. I vote for truth.”

Extra idea: If you find yourself at odds with a manager or co-worker, consider inviting him or her out to coffee, and talk about non-work related subjects, says Kerpen. He did just that with a colleague whom he disliked. “You can be completely honest,” said Kerpen of employees who are in situations similar to the one Kellso detailed. “You wouldn’t say, ‘No, I don’t like you,’ but you could say ‘I don’t feel like I know you well. Let’s grab coffee and get to know each other.’ That will likely help you find common ground with the person and develop a friendly relationship,” he said.

3. What if a colleague asks you whether you’re job hunting?

lbud / Shutterstock.comlbud / Shutterstock.com

Response: You can be honest without telling the questioner your actions, plans or goals, says Debra Benton, a Colorado-based executive coach and author of “The CEO Difference: How to Climb, Crawl and Leap Your Way to the Next Level of Your Career.” “You can certainly say, “There’s always a lot of discussion about jobs,” she said, and then recommends turning the conversation back to the person with questions about such things as their own job goals. “It’s important to be truthful,” said Benton. “If you don’t have integrity, you have nothing. But there are different forms of truth. It’s important to remember that.”

Extra idea: If the questioner follows up, perhaps by asking if you were “really” sick when you were out of the office, respond truthfully. “You can say ‘I felt awful that day!'” said Benton. “And you probably did because you felt guilty for calling in for a mental health day. That is the truth. That’s why it’s important to be careful when you are judging someone else’s truth. People’s cultures, their personalities, their upbringings all combine to have them see ‘truth’ differently.”

4. What if a colleague asks whether you like another colleague — and you don’t?

IAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV / Shutterstock.comIAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV / Shutterstock.com

Response: You’re not going to say you don’t like the person, of course, but you can be truthful and not hurt another person or create distrust, said Matthew Mercuri, director of human resources for Dupray Steam Cleaners of Newark, Delaware. “The truth hurts sometimes, and self-preservation and sympathy are two very powerful emotions,” he said. Instead of talking about the negatives of the person, consider centering your response on one or two positives about the person’s work without mentioning personal points. “I don’t really know him, but he sure did a great job bringing that major project in on time,” would be one way to deflect the question yet answer honestly.

5. What if a colleague asks whether you broke a confidence — and you did?

Phovoir / Shutterstock.comPhovoir / Shutterstock.com

Response: Confess and apologize, says Kerpen. “Be honest. Say ‘I was gossiping, and I’m sorry. I don’t have a good excuse.” Then offer to make it up to the person by taking on a project, giving positive feedback to the supervisor or otherwise taking a pro-active approach. “People have issues like that all the time,” he said. “If you confess you can build the relationship so it’s better than it was before. If you run from it, it will just divide you further.”

What’s your experience with lying — or being truthful — on the job? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

It's not the usual blah, blah, blah

I know... every site you visit wants you to subscribe to their newsletter. But our news and advice is actually worth reading! For 25 years, I've been making people richer without making their eyes glaze over. You'll be glad you did. I guarantee it!

Read Next: 5 Mind-Blowing Ways to Psych Yourself Up for Saving

Check Out Our Hottest Deals!

We're always adding new deals and coupons that'll save you big bucks. See the deals to the right and hundreds more in our Deals section.

Click here to explore 1,507 more deals!