It Turns Out Honesty Actually is the Best Policy: What it Means for the Workplace

Featured Image for WLAs Honesty in Business Post

The old adage, ‘Honesty is the best policy’, seems like an obvious and hackneyed platitude; of course honesty is better than dishonesty! Telling the truth is better than telling lies and anyone with a moral compass would agree. But it turns out that this is not merely a pithy aphorism from elementary moral philosophy. It’s actually backed up by the science. That’s right, there is scientific research all but proving the importance of employing honesty in the workplace.

Why is honesty important in the workplace?

          When it comes to human behavior in the workplace, there is a phenomenon known as counterproductive work behaviors (CWBs). If it is not obvious from the name, a CWB is any purposeful behavior intended to harm the organization or people in the organization. It can include anything from stealing to purposely withholding effort to intentionally sabotaging a work project to outright violence, and everything in between. Clearly, these aren’t behaviors that we like to see, but the reality is that CWBs cost organizations billions of dollars annually. And aside from the monetary cost, they also create an unsafe working environment for employees and damage employee morale. They are a big problem.

On the surface, it is not difficult to imagine why honesty would prevent people from engaging in these destructive behaviors. An honest person would be extremely uncomfortable stealing because stealing is a dishonest thing to do! An honest person would be extremely uncomfortable withholding effort because that involves dishonestly putting forth a level of competence that is incongruent with reality. Without even diving into the minutiae of scientific research, we can already draw a very clear line between honesty and, well, not engaging in CWBs.

There is scientific research all but proving the importance of employing honesty in the workplace.

Of course, there are other reasons people engage in CWBs and we would never claim that dishonesty is the only one. Situational factors are also important! For example, employees may lash out in response to high stress situations, employees may seek ill-advised vengeance in response to social injustice, and employees may simply be adhering to cultural norms of the workplace that do not discourage CWBs. However, one thing that should be obvious is that when you add dishonesty to the equations of any of the aforementioned situations, CWBs become even more likely!

What is Honesty-Humility?

Within the last twenty years, a new personality model has gained substantial traction in the psychological community. Two Canadian scholars were able to uncover a six-dimensional personality structure, called the HEXACO model of personality structure. This model expands upon the widely supported Big 5 model (which we covered in a previous post) of personality to include a brand new trait called “Honesty-Humility”.

 Much of what makes up Honesty-Humility is right there in its name! High scorers on this trait are honest and they are humble. To get a better sense of what this trait actually looks like, it is broken down into four subcomponents: sincerity, fairness, greed avoidance, and modesty. Thus, high scorers are sincere and genuine in their interactions with others, they are lenient when evaluating others. They are not materialistic or driven by superficial achievement markers like social status, and they are modest, rather than arrogant.

All boxed together, we have a person who is uncomfortable taking advantage of and deceiving others and is most comfortable telling the truth and treating people with fairness. Is it any surprise that such a person is unlikely to steal from their office or purposely waste time at work?

What does the science actually say?

Recent research indicates that Honesty-Humility, is among the strongest psychological predictors of counterproductive work behaviors that we know of! Not just one, but fifteen studies have demonstrated a clear and strong negative relationship between Honesty-Humility and CWBs. That means that the more honest and humble you are, the less likely you are to engage in these harmful behaviors.

Taken a step further, this means that just by administering a specific personality assessment, we can obtain invaluable insights into the likelihood of any given prospective employee to commit CWBs. It is a very powerful finding.

The problem is that organizations are not doing this. The best way to implement this knowledge is to administer personality assessments during the selection process. It is true that organizations already do use personality assessments in this way, but the vast majority of them unfortunately use less valid personality assessments, including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. This is unfortunate because the MBTI is a well-known work of pseudoscience that offers little more insight than astrology.

Fifteen studies have demonstrated a clear and strong negative relationship between Honesty-Humility and CWBs.

But this is not a Myers-Briggs hit piece. This is a call to action for organizations everywhere that value informed decision-making in their hiring processes to consider the utility of validated personality measures in said processes.

Why should Honesty-Humility matter to your business?

Sure, this is interesting to learn about, but what are we supposed to do about it? Well, if you ask me, or any industrial/organizational psychologist for that matter, we would say that we need to utilize this information to make better use of personality assessments in the hiring process.

Although our selection processes are extremely ‘experience’-oriented, employers are quickly moving towards the use of personality assessments in an attempt to glean vital information about an applicant’s candidacy and potential for success. Unfortunately, it is still rare for companies to use scientifically validated instruments to assess applicants’ personalities. Too often, organizations use inconsistent measures of personality such as Myers-Briggs quizzes. Inconsistent, or unreliable measurement of personality leads to inconsistent decisions regarding your hiring practices. Therefore, we highly recommend to any HR professional that they thoroughly vet and require their assessment provider to produce evidence of reliability and validity for their personality assessment.

Honesty in hiring photo
Some of the most important indicators of employee quality like Honesty-Humility aren’t listed on resumes.

Furthermore, with effective personality measurement, you can help guide your workforce towards reducing CWBs. Counterproductive work behaviors cost organizations billions of dollars every year. You can contribute to thwarting the far-reaching effects of this toxic phenomenon. All you have to do is hire honest employees.

If you want to prevent theft, hire honest employees. If you want to prevent workplace violence, hire honest employees. If you want to prevent intentional time-wasting, hire honest employees. If you want to prevent absenteeism, hire honest employees. Honesty, after all, is the best policy.

Key Takeaways

  • Common counterproductive work behaviors (CWBs) include intentional time-wasting, purposefully withholding effort, theft, violence, and absenteeism.
  • CWBs cost organizations billions of dollars annually.
  • Honesty-Humility is the strongest personality predictor of CWBs modern psychology has to offer.
  • Honesty-Humility can be measured with a simple personality assessment.
  • If you want to save money, create a safer work environment, and overall prevent CWBs, hire honest employees.

Article by

-Pasquale Tosto, Talent Analyst Research Intern, Workforce Lifecycle Analytics

One thought on “It Turns Out Honesty Actually is the Best Policy: What it Means for the Workplace

Leave a Reply