Jacob Kaplan-Moss


Honesty is a professional behavior

Welcome to the first part in my occasional series on professionalism. You may want to read the introduction to the series for some background and a working definition of “professionalism”.

In this post, I want to discuss a professional behavior that seems simple but is anything but: honesty. I’m going to make three points:

  1. Honesty is a professional behavior because healthy workplaces require honesty to function effectively
  2. Honesty means not lying, obviously, but also means telling the whole truth, and even further, volunteering important information without being asked.
  3. There are all sorts of exceptions. Generally speaking, dishonesty is acceptable in situations where someone else is behaving unprofessionally: threatening your safety, violating boundaries, etc.

Why honesty is professional behavior

To fully understand what “honesty” means in a professional setting, we need to unpack why honesty matters at work.

A fundamental purpose of organizations is strength in numbers: a group of people, working together, can accomplish much more than a bunch of individuals acting solo. Organizations exist, in a sense, to harness this collective effort towards a common purpose.

To work towards a common purpose, we need trust and communication. Communication is critical because people need to know what their teammates are doing; without communication, we can’t coordinate. And trust is critical because to focus on our own work we need to trust that our teammates will do their part.

Dishonesty undermines all of this. Communication only has value if it’s accurate! If I don’t know the truth about something I’m doing, I’m likely to do it wrong. If I have incorrect information about your part of a task, I may make mistakes on my part. If I don’t know the truth about what you’re up to, I might waste time. This then undermines trust: if you’ve lied to me in the past, it’s going to be hard to believe you the next time I need something.

Thus, dishonesty undermines the value we get out of organizations. Without honesty, we fall back to individual people working in solos, and can’t capture the value of working in teams. This is why honesty is a cornerstone of professional behavior. Not because it’s a moral imperative, but because it’s required for an organization to function effectively.

What honesty means in a professional context

Armed with an understanding of the value of honesty to organizations, we can now look at the specifics of what honesty means in a professional setting. It means three things:

  1. Not lying.
  2. Telling the whole truth, not omitting key details.
  3. Sharing critical information, even when not directly asked.

The first point is obvious, I hope. The second two maybe not as much, so let’s work through an example scenario to better understand.

Big warning: I’m going to get to exceptions – and there are quite a few – in the next section, so for now hang on to any “but what about…” thoughts. For now, assume this all applies only to normal and healthy organizations, and we’ll get to the ramifications in sick systems later.

Scenario: you’re part of a big, cross-functional team working towards a major feature release, scheduled for three weeks from today. You’ve just discovered a serious issue – a massive design flaw, some hard resource limits you can’t easily work around, a critical security issue, whatever – that means you’re quite likely to miss that date. Let’s say you’d give it a 50% chance you miss the deadline. You’re at a status meeting: all the important leads of the various parts of this project are there, coordinating their efforts before launch.

Scenario 1: the project manager asks you, “Hey, how’s your part going? Still on track to finish on time?” What’s the honest response? Hopefully this one’s obvious: the honest answer is: “it’s not going well; I think there’s a 50% chance we miss the deadline.”

Scenario 2: the project manager asks, “how’s your part going” – leaving out the “are you still on track?” question. What if you say something like “it’s not going great”, but leave out the part about the deadline. If they don’t follow up and ask about the timeline, have you been honest? No, you have not. Sure, you’ve told part of the truth, but remember: honesty is about communication and trust. You’ve failed to communicate the critical fact that your project is at risk, so the organization can’t respond to that risk. And when the rest of the team finds out you left out this important information, it’ll undermine their trust in you.

Scenario 3: you aren’t asked directly. Instead, the PM just asks the room, generally, “how’s everyone doing on their projects?” They aren’t talking to you (or anyone) specifically. Or even more subtly, what if there isn’t a question at all? What if it’s just normal for folks to offer status updates at this meeting if they have them. Is it honest to just keep silent? No, it’s not: once again, you know a fact that’s crucial to the status of this project, and by not saying anything you’re withholding that fact from the rest of the team. From a communications standpoint, it doesn’t matter if you’ve outright lied or just withheld; the result is the same. You’re preventing communication, and, again, undermining trust. You probably should have spoken up just as soon as you realized this serious issue; waiting until the status meeting itself can, in some contexts, be a mild form of dishonesty1.

Dishonesty is wrong except when it isn’t

I hope I’ve made the case for honesty as a professional value … because now I’m going to talk about when it’s acceptable to lie at work. There are quite a few scenarios where I argue that it is acceptable to lie. Here are some of them; see if you can spot the theme:

Lying for safety

What if telling the truth would expose you or a colleague to unfair or illegal retaliation, or harassment? This often comes up around areas of identity: if you’re gay or trans, for example, it’s reasonable to suspect that coming out at work could expose you to harassment. Professionalism doesn’t require you to be out at work. (Also see below about boundaries.)

More subtly, this can come up when working with people who can’t be trusted to behave professionally if given the truth. For example, imagine you’ve got a boss who’s prone to yelling at people and berating them when they make mistakes. He asks you if someone on your team did some task well. You know that that the person didn’t – they made some mistakes – and suspect your boss will go nuclear if told. May you tell your boss “yup, everything’s fine” and then quietly work with this teammate to correct the error before your boss notices?

Yes. It is dishonest, but it’s not unprofessional. Your boss’s unprofessional behavior means he’s no longer necessarily entitled to professional behavior in return. Professionalism is a mutual code, and your boss isn’t holding up his end. Another way to look at this is that psychological safety is also a professional value, and in cases like this it’s appropriate to let safety trump honesty.

The exception to the exception is that you shouldn’t lie to cover up illegal or unethical behavior, even if you’re worried about unprofessional responses. If the mistake your colleague made was embezzlement, it’s not acceptable to keep it from your boss, even if they’ll respond inappropriately2.

Protecting boundaries

Here’s a super-common scenario. It’s your team’s regular Monday morning meeting, and y’all are chit-chatting before the work agenda starts. “What’d you do over the weekend?”, someone asks. What if you don’t want to answer? Maybe this weekend you and your partner went on a date with a potential new third but don’t want to get into your polyamorous relationship status at work. Maybe you went target shooting but work with people who find guns distasteful. Maybe you volunteered for an abortion clinic. Or worked on a political campaign. Maybe nothing fraught at all - maybe you went skiing, had some disappointing runs, and don’t wanna talk about it much.

In any case: what you do outside of work is, generally speaking, none of your colleague’s business3. Saying “that’s none of your business” is honest but it can also sound weirdly hostile. It’s completely acceptable to lie here.

We talk sometimes about “bringing your whole self to work”. In safe workplaces that may be an option, but it’s never an obligation. You have a right not to discuss race, gender, sexual orientation or identity, religion, disability, and other aspects of your identity. You never have to discuss having kids or choosing not to. Your health, and the health of your family and friends, are off-limits. This includes discussions of weight, exercise, and eating choices.

In all of these cases – and others like – it’s acceptable to lie. I usually go for, and recommend, something bland like “oh not much” or “just hung out at home”, rather than any sort of outright lie, but any sort of lie is fine here.

The reason that lying is acceptable here is similar to the “safety” case: professionalism is a mutual code, and someone pressuring you to talk about your romantic partners at work is violating that code. I want to stress that most of the time this isn’t malicious behavior, just small-talk gone wrong, but it’s still enough outside the norms of professional behavior that you’re cleared to lie.

Protecting employment

You never have to tell the truth if it would jeopardize your employment. Sometimes bosses (bad ones) or HR (bad HR) will ask, “are you looking for another job?” If you’re asked this, you can – and probably should – always so “no”, even if it’s a lie. More insidiously, you might get asked if you’re “happy” at work. If you’re not, it’s fine to lie: sometimes, saying “no” might mean putting your employment on the line.

It’s always ok to lie about looking for new jobs, or about how happy you are at your current job, or about how you feel about your compensation, benefits, and so forth. At some workplaces, it might be safe to be honest about this stuff, and there might be good reasons to speak up if your benefits suck. But you’re never obligated to do so, and it’s always ok to lie.

I covered the background for advice like this in a previous article on “mercenary” advice:

Most employees have essentially no workplace protections; in most states you can be fired for no reason and no notice. Because healthcare is tied to your job, getting fired can be a medical emergency on top of a financial one. […]

So when I encourage people to think of themselves first, it’s against this backdrop. It’s true that healthy workplaces exist, where more collectivist ways of thinking work out well. But companies will lie to you about being that kind of place, and there are no consequences for that. I’m comfortable with advice that can sometimes lean towards the mercenary if it prevents folks from being burned. I’d love to live in a world where less mercenary advice wasn’t dangerous, but that’s not our world.

Becoming suddenly unemployed can quite literally have life-altering consequences. Against that background, it’s unprofessional to put someone in a place where they are jeopardizing their employment by being honest. When your boss asks you if you’re looking elsewhere, they’re violating the professional code, and you may as well.

Professionalism is a mutual agreement

I think the theme may be clear from the examples, but to make it explicit:

Honesty exists as a professional value because it facilitates communication, collaboration, and trust. In many of these exceptions, there’s nothing of value to the organization being communicated. Sure, there’s some trust built through small talk, but telling a few white lies to skip over the parts of your personal life you don’t want to share doesn’t change that.

But more broadly: professionalism is a (mostly-unwritten) working agreement between co-workers, and between employees and employers. It’s a mutual agreement: everyone is bound by it. Honesty is one of the obligations that falls under this agreement, but there are other obligations: safety, respecting boundaries, and so forth.

When the other party violates part of the professional code, you’re not necessarily obligated to continue holding up your end. It isn’t exactly a tit-for-tat situation; your attitude shouldn’t be “well they broke the code so I’m going to punish them”. There are often great reasons to take the high road and behave professionally even when the other parties aren’t. But when honesty runs into some of these other unprofessional behaviors, like violating boundaries or safety, being dishonest is often your least bad option.

I plan to write more about other professional behaviors. What should I cover next? Let me know! I’m @jacobian on Twitter, or you can email jacob@<this domain>.

  1. There’s a fair degree of subtlety to this point though. You shouldn’t send out status updates every time a project’s risk profile changes. Every project has some risk, communicating “we just moved to a 97% success rate, oh wait, now it’s up to 98%” would get exhausting for everyone. So there’s some minimum risk threshold below which it’s acceptable to round up to “OK”. Nor is it imperative that you communicate risk the second you realize it; if you discovered this hypothetical issue the day before that regularly-scheduled status meeting, it may be just fine to wait for the already-scheduled status update meeting. Or it may not: if the launch is in two days, not three weeks, speaking up about the risk earlier might be warranted. So this one’s complex, and somewhat culturally mediated (i.e., different workplaces will treat this differently). But underlying the complexity is a simple point: if you know something important and don’t speak up about it with appropriate speed, that’s a form of dishonesty. ↩︎

  2. You may also be legally mandated to blow the whistle. If you find yourself in this spot, I hope you’re not just getting advice from some dude’s blog: if you’ve discovered embezzlement or other illegal behavior, you probably should consult a lawyer about your legal obligations. ↩︎

  3. “Generally speaking” is doing some work there. Once again, there are exceptions to exceptions. There are outside-of-work behaviors that are your company’s business. If what you did over the weekend was “rob a bank”, that’s going to impact your employment – and it probably should. There’s nuance here, but for the most part, your workplace doesn’t have a right to know about most outside-of-work behavior. ↩︎