Honesty: Coming to an office near you

Elena Shalneva
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Honesty can get you fired, but lying can make you sick (Source: Getty)

Last year, after reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, I wrote a column about lying.

While Peterson’s book argued that one should always tell the truth, I countered that, in a work environment, such philosophy was unrealistic. Honesty can get you fired. I would know.

­“What did you think about my speech?” my boss asked on the way from a conference.

Flattery is part of a junior’s job, so he rightly expected a eulogy.

“It was primitive,” I replied, “as if written by a sixth-grader.”

According to Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, such integrity should have earned me a promotion. According to the actual rules of life, I promptly found myself sidelined.

So, unless you want to finish your career with a whopping title of senior manager – having started as a junior manager four decades earlier – blunt honesty is a bad strategy.

However, what I just described is not so much lying as putting up a pretence. Being British, if you like. But what about actual lying? The fibs that we tell each other so frequently and so indulgently that they’ve pretty much become an instinct.

“Emma, you’ve been sitting on my proposal for two weeks.”

“So sorry, I’ve been on holiday, for my son’s birthday, to Ibiza, it was glorious.”

Fair enough. Except you are forgetting, Emma, that you and I are Facebook friends, and so I know that your son’s birthday was in April. I could call you out on this, of course. But that would be the height of social ineptitude. So, I’ll mind my manners and play along.

And then there are customer service issues. “Wilhelm respected the truth, but he could lie,” wrote Saul Bellow. In my vast and invariably dreadful experience with call centres, “respecting the truth” is very rarely a consideration.

A Deliveroo rider can’t find my house, drives away, but marks my status as “delivered”.

For the next 20 minutes, a Deliveroo rep tries to convince me that the driver had in fact been there: ringing my buzzer, pounding on my door, peering through my windows, calling out my name.

All in vain. I stubbornly, deliberately, wilfully refused to let the poor chap in and accept the Byron burger that I had paid for and was very much hoping to eat.

Or this conversation that I had with my gym manager.

“Why is the back stretcher not working?”

“A customer broke it.”

“It’s been a month. Why didn’t you fix it?”

“We did, but another customer broke it since.”

“Gosh, you have a ring of vandals operating in the gym. Have you called the police?”

That’s what I should have replied – but again, this would’ve put the fine gentleman on the spot and constituted unacceptably poor manners. In a polite society, you don’t call people liars.

The gym manager can run his business whichever way he wants and good luck to him, and call centres are not my concern – I forget about them as soon as I hang up. But good colleagues like Emma are.

Because fibs told in close working relationships, even if they are seemingly benign, eventually grow into a large and ugly mass, a charade that takes a constant effort to maintain and, in the end, makes you sick.

And this is how, in an ideal world, my conversation with Emma should have gone.

“Emma, you’ve been sitting on my proposal for two weeks.”

“No, I read it, actually, and it’s rubbish. I was hoping you wouldn’t bring it up – but since you did, I’m sorry to disappoint.”

In most cases, honesty may be the best policy after all.

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