Honesty: always the best policy ?

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LONDON. July 24. KAZINFORM It's safe to say US President Barack Obama had no idea the trouble he'd find himself in after telling a kid journalist recently that his favourite food was broccoli, BBC publishes.

Since then, comedians and Twitter users have served up entrée-sized servings of accusations that the president was dishonest with the pint-sized reporter.

If he did stretch the truth, Obama, a father of two, has plenty of company.

Some 84 percent of parents lie to their kids in the name of good parenting, according to a study released in November by the International Journal of Psychology.

Given that, maybe we can blame our parents for the difficulty we have being entirely truthful at work. One in five people admit to fibbing in the workplace at least once a week, according to a CareerBuilder.com survey , and a quarter of hiring managers say they've fired a worker for being dishonest.

Or perhaps we can blame the workplace. Corporate culture often calls for supervisors to keep "competitive secrets" to prevent revealing strategies that could tip off competitors. That practice leads people down the road of lying.

Honesty in business is often high on lists of what employees say they want in the workplace. Yet they usually get managers who tell white lies in the belief that they're following the company line or protecting employees from bad news. But management experts say honesty should always win out - as long as supervisors understand and carefully manage the difference between truthfulness and full transparency.

Managers must always be truthful or they run the risk of polluting the ethics of those who report to them - even if that manager can't be entirely transparent, according to retired US Army brigadier general Thomas A Kolditz, now a professor and director of the leadership development program at the Yale School of Management in New Haven, Connecticut. When Kolditz worked at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, his colleagues conducted a survey of soldiers serving in Mosul, Iraq, and found that they listed honesty and integrity third among the qualities they want in a superior (after competence and loyalty).

"Leaders set the ethical tone," Kolditz said. "If a leader is being dishonest, you will see that employees will be dishonest with each other."

That might sound like a politician's hedge, but most managers struggle to maintain the balance between honesty and transparency. Kolditz himself dealt with that balance a few years ago when superiors told him the department he previously ran at West Point faced layoffs. When employees asked him about the possibility of cutbacks, Kolditz was honest with them - without revealing information he was forbidden to release. Instead, he'd say he couldn't answer the question and then shift the conversation.

Honest, yes? Transparent? Perhaps not to his subordinates. But in such situations, it's crucial for a manager to set the tone in the office, said R. Edward Freeman, professor and academic director at the Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics at University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.

When asked about coming layoffs or cutbacks, for instance, managers need to be honest. But an awkward silence or half-truth meant to keep the opacity of the details is damaging - it sends too dire a message and breeds distrust.

"In today's world, most employees are pretty smart, so they're going to read into the lack of an answer," Freeman said. "So it's important for the manager to steer the conversation in a way that doesn't cause panic."

That advice goes against what a lot of human resources departments might hope managers are doing. Some prefer bosses to tell white lies to keep people working, Freeman acknowledges.

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