The art of telling the truth | HR Memories

Do you think you are good at telling the truth? I am not talking about the “do I look fat in this dress” kind of truth but truth in the business place.

Most people think it’s easy for supervisors and employees to be totally honest. After all it’s business, not personal. That is just not so. Everyone is eager to  give out good news – raises, promotions, accolades, good things that are happening. Ah, but when the news is not so good everyone does the dance. Employees are not so honest and supervisors do their best to avoid it.


My first lesson in employment truth came way before my HR years. Early on I worked as an analyst in a construction department of a large company. I did well (mostly) and was very well liked. Heck, I was young and perky, what’s not to like? The job was 75% interesting. That included interactions with some hunky construction foreman (hey, I was young!) and the projects themselves were interesting. I learned a lot about construction.

That uninteresting 25% included a monthly report I had to do on what work had been completed. There were budget costs, manpower hours, overruns and project statistics. To complete the report I had to glean details from a foot-high pile of green line spreadsheets that were 11 inches x 17 inches. This was before computer programs did the calculations for you. It was horrible and it took a full week.

It’s not that I was bad at numbers, it just wasn’t my interest. I was on top of my class in algebra but for me, it was all about problem-solving. I drove my teacher crazy because I could do equations that went on forever but couldn’t add 2 and 2. That came back to bite me,

One month I was off big time. I had no idea what went wrong and couldn’t recreate my error. My supervisor, who really liked me, had to have “the talk” with me. We discussed that maybe this wasn’t what I was cut out to do. He also talked about how hard it was to tell me that my work sucked. It was a huge lesson for me. I did some soul-searching and decided that hot construction workers weren’t going to make me successful. I had to move on. That was a turning point for me and I had a lot of respect for that supervisor.

When I became a supervisor, I remembered that lesson and worked to be as honest and truthful as possible. I quickly found out that I was not the standard. Most supervisors ignored problems, swept issues under the rug or even reassigned work based on who could do what. The more capable you were the more work you got. Then I moved to human resources. (sigh.)

I vowed that employees would get the best truth that I could give. Sometimes it was painful and required chocolate and wine at night (for me). Other times it was joyous as the employee understood and appreciated the information. Sometimes I was hated, sometimes I was feared and once in a while I was loved.

There was an employee who was laid off during a downsizing. She applied when some jobs became available. She had good work habits and there was nothing in her performance reviews that reflected anything negative but her former supervisor was not interested in a rehire. When pressed, he said she was too slow – too slow to learn and too slow with work. He couldn’t tell me why that wasn’t discussed with her or noted on reviews. (Huge HR sad sigh!) I called her and explained why we wouldn’t rehire her in detail with examples. She was stunned but thanked me and moved on. That was better than making up an excuse only to have her continue to reapply.

I have a lot of these kinds of stories. Even angry employees who stomped out and threatened to sue called back in a year and said it was the best thing that happened to them.

Too often we fear being the bearer of bad news. Here is another way to look at it — we are bearers of good long-term news. We are giving them opportunity and encouragement to do something that they know they need to do. Who wants to be employed where their work isn’t appreciated and they have no chance of advancement? Tell them and let them move on!

I know the job climate isn’t great now but in the past year I have seen quite a few people move into a better job. They are out there. You have to work harder and step out of your comfort zone.

It’s not just in work either. I shake my head when I hear that someone broke up with their spouse or friend in an email.

Good grief, strap on a pair, buy a case of chocolate (or wine) and tell it like it is! In person!

By the way, you should never tell someone they look fat no matter what unless you are in the medical profession. That is the only lie that is permissible.

Oh yes, a hot construction worker can still make me smile. I am not dead.

Photos courtesy of some unknown people. Sorry I can’t give credit!

21 thoughts on “The art of telling the truth | HR Memories

  1. All I can say is I wish the workplace had more professionals like you willing to swallow their own discomfort in order to give employees the kind of feedback they can put to real use. Kudos!


  2. This is just chock full of great advice. People have become very disconnected and this next generation is by far the worst. They will just send a text “Your Fired” and it will be excepted. No interaction, no questions…nothing. You should teach a class on the importance of truth in the workplace, it would do this world good!


  3. Boy is this a great post. Jen has a boss now that does some of the stuff you mentioned- covers for employees that can’t make the grade while piling extra work on those that can. It’s frustrating and she’s out there looking for something better.


  4. 33 years in the Miami Dade School system taught me a lot about lies and cover ups for scandals and such. For just one example they skew statistics esp reporting weapons and crime in school because it makes every one up the lines look bad so they manufacture a “normal” or “acceptable ” level of violence. Another joke is claiming a 50% graduation rate. Well if 250 of 500 graduate that it true but if you start with 1,000 ninth graders it’s only 25%.


  5. Many years ago, during a job interview, I was told that I didn’t appear to be the “go-to person” at the newspaper I worked for. I didn’t get the job.
    That sports term really threw me for a loop. But I began to look at what I was doing and what I needed to do to improve in the eyes of my current employer. Then I began to take those steps. Suddenly, a job I was at one time unhappy with became one I looked forward to doing each day.
    About a year later, I wrote a letter to that interviewer and thanked him for his remarks. I added that I was delighted when my current boss referred to me in a memo as the “go-to person” at the paper and explained why he’d said that.
    I’m glad that you were honest – but, not brutally so – when you talked to people about their career. What happened to me initially would have sent some folks into a downward spiral. I was just determined to prove I had the right stuff.

    It’s possible to turn a negative into a positive.


    • Thanks for commenting. It is so hard to get hiring supervisors to be honest. Sometimes there is no good reason, the other candidate just looked better qualified but oftimes there is something that could be corrected. It could just be an impression you give. Or maybe the candidate is not a match for the duties (an introvert in a sales job) and that information helps them too.


  6. Great post. It can be really frustrating when employers aren’t honest with their staff. How can you fix a problem or improve your performance if you aren’t told what needs fixing? I would much rather be told the hard truth and given the opportunity to fix or improve myself than be lied to or coddled and forever wonder what’s wrong with me.
    Same with relationships. When I was younger, and single and dating, there were times when I could sense things were “off” with a guy. I even confronted a few of them with “look, just tell me it’s over and we can move on, I can handle it.”. For whatever reason they would lie, say everything was fine and proceed to make me look like I was crazy and THEN dump me because I was high maintenance or needy or some other degrading reason. I also had guys who could never just come out and tell me they just weren’t into me that way. I would get some lame excuse that would leave me with a thread of hope that there was a chance in hell that down the road, when circumstances are slightly different, it might work. One time, one guy I really had a crush on did this for awhile, allowed me to chase him for a bit. He finally told a male friend of mine that he wasn’t interested in me because of my weight. My roommate was livid and wanted to throttle him. I actually appreciated the honesty and wasn’t mad and immediately the crush was over. With that honest yet callous and superficial reason, I was able to see who he really was and that it wasn’t me who had the problem. I was maybe 10 lbs overweight at the time. I could lose that weight, he was stuck with himself and how he viewed women. He was always going to be a jerk. It was some of the best honesty I have ever gotten.


    • People think they are sparing your feelings when in reality they are a coward. I had a male friend who only liked thin women. I would get frustrated with him (he was no beauty himself) as he would pass up some great women, preferring women he didn’t have a chance with. Even though I was thin, that kind of stuff turned me off.


  7. Truth in business can be brutal, especially when you are with a firm rife with office politics. I admire your strength in dealing with extremely difficult situations. This is a thought provoking post.


  8. I’m good at telling the truth most times but you know, sometimes I get a bit embarassed to tell grown folk what they should know already.

    A hot construction can make me smile too and I’d tell’m so.


  9. I was fired from my last corporate job in Toronto then moved out of Canada for good! I hated that job from day 1 and knew it was coming. I was only there 3 months and realized it was a huge mistake to leave a good job for a lot more money 10,000 more, even though I had that little voice in my head saying don’t do it. Obviously, I didn’t listen to it, haha.
    When the HR person asked if I was okay and offered to call me a taxi I laughed and told her I was going to go celebrate. She was shocked when I told her she just did me a favour and that I hated it there. I only stayed that long because I hadn’t found something to replace it yet.


    • I had to work at it at the beginning because it is hard. Then, when I saw the positive side, it became easier and I became better at it. Using the right words and maintaining respect does make it easier.


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