The View from HR

Tell employees the truth and be specific

May 4, 2013 

Let’s agree up front on one thing: Lying to employees (and managers) is a bad thing. Maybe a comment on the “nice haircut” or “cute baby” does no harm. However, most lies destroy relationships, credibility, effectiveness and more.

When you are not lying, are you telling the truth? For many of us, there is a big gray zone between a lie and the real truth.

Stick with me here. I am not suggesting you speak everything you think every time you think it, or that the real truth is always productive or needed. What I am suggesting is that we could all increase our Truth Telling Quotient (TTQ) by a high percentage and (almost) everyone would benefit.

Time To Praise: Raise your TTQ when you see praiseworthy activity. The real truth means the praise is real, is something important and is specific.

“Nice job” is a start, but “We got that client because you cared so much about the quality of your proposal and meeting their real needs” is so much better. “Way to go” beats nothing, but “I know taking that risk was hard; great judgment and great execution,” makes them go home whistling.

Time to Confront: Multiply your TTQ when it is time to confront or redirect. This is where we usually go gray because the truth feels uncomfortable or too personal, or maybe the problem has grown over a long period. Whether you are a manager or employee, ask yourself why the truth is so hard to tell and what things could be like after the truth is told.

Properly told, for the right reasons and in the right way, the truth is a salve that starts healing and changes destructive patterns. There is a big difference between “The whole team and I have had it with your junk” versus “This team is here to accomplish specific purposes and time spent on unrelated matters such as [insert specifics here] keeps us off track. I need you to focus on this team’s concerns, not the problems in your department. When you veer off track I am going to bring it to your attention right then, and I want you to understand why I am doing this.”

The Unknown And Unknowable: Bring your TTQ up another notch when it is time to talk about the unknown and the unknowable. Managers should be neither know-it-alls nor know-nothings. An ability to tell the truth about what you know, what you believe, what you are thinking and what might be is very important to people. It is a good thing to have conviction about some things you cannot prove, just label them as such. It is also fine to admit lack of knowledge or to change your mind for the right reasons.

Old B-grade cops and robbers movies often featured a bright light in a dark interrogation room with a sternly delivered command such as, “Don’t you think it is about time you started telling the truth?”

It is never too late.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm, with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro, that helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. For more information, visit

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