Honesty And Career Success: Using Tact To Make Sure the Truth Doesn't Hurt

Honesty at work, as elsewhere, is the best policy. But tact and judgment are needed to prevent the truth from hurting others–or yourself.

Getting ahead in a career can present many temptations to shade or alter the truth. While honesty is the best policy, it takes judgement and tact to make sure the truth doesn’t hurt one’s associates–or one’s own career.

The Professional Setting

It is certainly a professional obligation to apply knowledge and expertise to the advancement of whatever enterprise one is part of. But when the boss asks for an opinion about his pet project at a staff meeting, it would be prudent to consider how critical comments would affect his comfort level. Pleading the need to look at the issue more closely and then offering the candid thoughts in private would be an alternative that fulfills a professional responsibility and maintains a respectful relationship. It is also generally wise to “sandwich” criticism between genuinely positive remarks about the overall objective, concept, or design.

Unofficial settings also present problems. A request by a lunch companion for an opinion about a colleague or a customer may seem harmless enough. But it can result in being labeled a gossip or a partisan of a particular faction in office politics. More seriously, if the information is incorrect or exaggerated, it can do unfair harm to the person being discussed, and it can make an enemy if the source is identified or surmised. One’s words must be based on judgments about the integrity of the lunch companion and the reliability of the information.


Reporting calls for special care. Self-interest naturally motivates an emphasis on the value of one’s contribution to the organization and a soft-pedaling of concerns unless they can be clearly attributed to other people. There are organizational cultures which seem to welcome “can-do” reports and look askance at conveyors of pessimism. The investigations of the Space Shuttle disasters revealed that disturbing test results and observations on vital systems were suppressed at lower management levels for fear that they would reflect badly on the reporters in the eyes of senior decision makers. The results were tragic loss of life and equipment and major setbacks to programs.

Conversely, adverse information flows more rapidly and widely when faults can be laid at the doorsteps of others. But here other risks are run: alienation of people whose cooperation will be needed in the future and, perhaps more importantly, missed opportunities to analyze problems to identify salvageable elements. Pulling someone else’s chestnuts out of the fire is worth more in esteem than merely deflecting blame from oneself. At the very least, one should share adverse information with colleagues who will be affected by reporting to avoid “blindsiding” them.