Honesty in Organizations

People across the world value honesty. It is an important virtue that we hold in high esteem in ourselves and others. Individuals find complex and creative ways to see themselves and be seen by others as honest, lest they suffer harms to their self-image, reputation, or relationships. Organizations espouse honesty as an aspiration and an obligation, emphasizing it in their mission statements, corporate philosophies, and business codes.

Yet, honesty can be challenging to achieve. We are often faced with difficult conversations at work, where it can seem risky to candidly share information and beliefs with others who might not be receptive to what we have to say. Managers and employees communicate in ways that are “less than truthful” to avoid confrontation or conflict, to buy time for organizational strategies to play out, for self-enhancement or self-protection, and to ensure quality in the delivery of a product or service. The potential allure of dishonesty can, at times, seem appealing for career success, short-term wins, or conversely to avoid setbacks or failures. When employees inflate their credentials, overstate their sales, or misrepresent information in their resumes or when negotiating, they may be rewarded with increased opportunities and profit.

In this article, we ask the question, what do we know about honesty in organizations? What has been studied and what has not? We answer these questions with a systematic review of the 80 empirical articles in management, organizational behavior, and business ethics journals from the past 20 years that investigated honesty in some form. We read and coded these articles to identify common themes and areas that would benefit from future inquiry. Our results challenge the assumption that honesty is merely the opposite of lying. Rather, honesty is a complex phenomenon that has been studied from a variety of vantage points, including as: a disparate set of intrapersonal and interpersonal behaviors, a character trait of individuals, an organizational value, a social norm, and a social perception of people, organizations, and brands. We hope that by developing a more complete view of honesty, our work can alter the trajectory of the field and inspire scholars to think expansively and holistically about the topic and expand our understanding of the important role of honesty in the workplace.

Research Team: Cooper, B., Cohen, T. R., Huppert, E., Levine, E. E., & Fleeson, W.

Current Status: Forthcoming, Academy of Management Annals, 17(2).

Binyamin Cooper
Binyamin Cooper
Post-Doctoral Research Fellow

My research explores how communicators and receivers navigate difficult conversations in the workplace.