Is Honesty Really the Best Policy?


Ask Dr. Clemmons is a monthly advice column for scientists and engineers who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory article to see what the column is all about, and then send me a question of your own!

Dear Dr. Clemmons,

I recently started a job right out of college as an entry-level biological engineer at a large, multinational company. It is becoming evident to me that, in general, people are not honest on the job and do not take responsibility for the quality of their work. Instead, they resort to cover-ups, excuses, and other tactics rather than just being honest with themselves and their supervisors. This is in stark contrast to what I experienced in college, where lively debate and discourse were always in order. Because I don't share their values, I am beginning to feel as if I am becoming isolated from my colleagues. How can I maintain my honesty and integrity in this new job and stay true to myself?

Sincerely,Just Trying to Be an Honest Team Player

Dear Just Trying,

I understand your concern and empathize with you. Although you may feel like the situation is out of your control, there are steps you can take to improve your work environment without compromising your values.

Stop, Look, and ListenYou are not in Kansas anymore! The workaday world is much different than academia. Expecting things to be exactly the same is not reasonable; you must adapt to the new situation.

So, step back and take the time to learn why things are the way they are in your new workplace. Try to find someone within the company whom you can confide in. Perhaps you can identify a trustworthy person who has been employed at the company for a few years. Ask questions. Although this method may be the best way to gather information, it may be difficult. You may have already tried to find a confidant at work and did not succeed, hence, the reason for writing.

Nevertheless, if you do find someone, ask: Is the boss intimidating? Has there been an incident at the company that has caused workers to feel uneasy about admitting mistakes? Or, do your colleagues fear losing their jobs so much in these roller-coaster economic times that they are willing to say anything to stay employed? Reserve judgment until you know the full story. Be smart and do what all "green" engineers are taught to do--keep your nose to the grindstone. Get your work done; talk less, and listen more.

What's the Worst That Could Happen?

Give the situation a chance to work itself out. But if you find you were right about your colleagues and you decide to leave, you'll need to spend time looking for another job. The worst that can happen is that you'll have to put up with people you don't like for a few more months while you look for a new gig. And here's the best-case scenario: If you decide to stick it out, you may learn some valuable people skills from the experience, and in the long term your savvy may pay off, either in this company or a new one.

Of course, no amount of money is worth torturing yourself over, but people are different, and different institutions have different social cultures. Learning to work with people who don't think like you, working together to solve problems--these skills are necessary to be successful in life personally or professionally. There's no way around it.

Maneuvering Around Obstacles

For all you know, the department head is aware that his project teams are dysfunctional, but you can do something that will help your career without looking like you are going against your colleagues. Schedule a private meeting with your boss to discuss ways to improve group morale and work efficiency without mentioning specific incidents involving colleagues. A good boss listens to suggestions from his workers, whether they are new hires or longtime employees.

By providing recommendations for how to improve the work environment, you demonstrate initiative and stand out from the pack as someone with leadership qualities. If company higher-ups are looking for new talent to groom in the future, your name may just end up on the short list. What's best about this plan is that you positively affect your situation and help your boss root out some problems, which will make him look good. Your job as a subordinate is to make your boss look good. If you can do that and help your career, you have effectively killed two birds with one stone.

To help you prepare for this meeting, you'll need information on how to handle corporate politics and interpersonal relationships in the workplace. I highly recommend starting with Cracking the Corporate Code: The Revealing Success Stories of 32 African-American Executives by Price M. Cobbs and Judith L. Turnock and Working with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. I've gained a lot of insight from reading both of these books.

Ignorance Is Bliss?

If you prefer not to speak with your boss about the situation, here's another alternative. Pretend you don't notice your colleagues' underhandedness and continue to stand behind your work. Don't give a minute of thought to what others are doing or saying if it isn't constructive. Unless a particular incident is affecting your reputation or health directly, don't worry about it. Stay above the fray and away from the backstabbing, cover-ups, and incompetence. You never know; your courage and commitment to doing things the right way may influence others in your department.

Taking Care of YOU

To ease the sting of a less-than-desirable work environment, spend more time away from work engaging in activities that benefit you. Treat yourself to relaxing retreats on the weekends that are within your budget. Go home in the evenings and do something just for yourself to get your mind off of work. This has different meanings for different people, but all I ask is that you do things that positively reinforce who you are and elevate your self-worth. For me, I like to read intriguing business articles, take a bubble bath, or do both at the same time. For others it means hiking or rock climbing. It can even mean just sitting in silence and reflecting on your goals and dreams. Whatever you do, make sure it's productive and builds your self-esteem. If depression sneaks in, seek professional counsel.

Please let me know if you become more attuned to your new job and colleagues in a few more months and whether or not you used any of the advice I've offered. Remember that life lessons learned are never in vain if you use the information to prevent repeating past mistakes. Your present situation is a small challenge for you in the big picture of corporate life. The more you learn now, the better off you will be.

--Dr. Clemmons

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