COMMENTARY 781.2: How Honest Do you Have to Be When Applying for a Job?

Can a job applicant properly withhold information about a criminal record or being fired in a previous job? Can a woman who has just started dating properly say nothing about a previous marriage or abortion? These are problems of candor: When does an ethical person have a duty to reveal negative information about his past?

First, let’s reinforce a basic premise: All dimensions of honesty — truthfulness, nondeception and candor — are important to establishing and sustaining relationships of trust. Intimacy flourishes in an atmosphere of openness and vulnerability. While knowledge of negative information can damage some relationships, later discovered secrets are often fatal.

Second, there is a much higher expectation of full disclosure in personal relationships than in business relationships.

But, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson, not everyone can really handle the truth. So why should someone sabotage himself by telling a new boss, friend or potential life partner things that could impede the relationship?

As tempting as it is, keeping such matters secret is like burying landmines within the relationship. Undisclosed truths build fault lines under the foundation of important relationships and, in a person of conscience, they create guilt, fear and insecurity.

Trust is just a state of mind and maintaining trust is about meeting the expectations of people who trust us. So here’s an easy test: Upon finding out the whole truth, will the person who was denied knowledge feel betrayed? If so, the honorable thing is to fess up.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

Comments 5

  1. Great description of “honesty,” even if (or especially after) I had to look up the definition of candor. Nondisclosure is often a difficult one for me to get through; I may be truthful, and then again I’m not disclosing something relevant to the topic… and therefore I would not pass the “easy test” cited.

    Undisclosed truths are like burying landmines within the relationship… so true.

  2. “Tell Everything” is the general rule, it does not apply in all conceivable situations. Going back to dating, while disclosing a prior marriage or abortion would certainly be essential, disclosing details about sexual activities with prior persons, unless there are health issues, is foolish and hurtful, doing nothing to improve or build a relationship. Another example is disclosing improper conduct by adults to related younger children. Age and maturity must be considered when disclosing very sensitive information, just speaking “the truth” without regard to others feelings and needs can be cruel and completely unnecessary, adding nothing to their well being

    If the intent is deceit and to mislead, when providing information, then the person is not being honest.

  3. If only it were so easy as to “follow the ethical rule” to always be honest. But, I agree with the previous commentor that always being honest and “telling it all” is sometimes not in anyone’s best interest. Using Darwin’s Theory of “Survival of The Fittest” and “The end justifies the means” sometimes one would NOT be successful without hiding some information and thus instead of benefitting oneself and the world being totally honest would prevent progress. Perhaps famous examples are found in show business such as when the director asks a new actor, “Do you dance?” and the new actor says, “yes, I can dance” when they actually cannot do so. Then, that night the new actor goes home and teaches themselves to dance and as a result of dishonesty they become rich and famous. Perhaps it is how much damage is done to the other party that should be the deciding factor whether to difulge or not to do so. For example, if someone has an incurable disease like AIDS it would then be unethical and wrong to knowingly pass germs on to another person that might end their life or make them very ill. Thus, “the right thing to do” cannot be put in terms of a general rule that one should always follow….but “doing the right things” depends on the particular circumstances that we should evaluate on a case by case basis. Ah, if only life were simple and we didn’t have to THINK!

    1. Post

      If you don’t think its right for someone to lie to you you shouldn’t lie to them. If you don’t think it’s alright for someone to withhold important information from you don’t withhold it from them. Suppose you left a good job for a better one (in terms of pay) expecting it to be your new career. Your new employer needed you to finish a project but secretly knew he couldn’t afford to keep you on once the project was completed. Once the project was done he lets you go apologizing that he can’t afford to keep you. Do you think he had an obligation of candor even though it was clearly not in his self-interest to tell the truth? This precise thing just happened to a former employee who left the Institute and was shocked to be fired two months later (after doing a praiseworthy job). I have to suppose from your comment that self-interest is the guide in such situations or have i misinterpreted you?

  4. In the case you just cited, the intent was to deceive to the detriment of the recently hired employee. There was no real offer of continuing employment so it was a fraud from the outset.

    Again the original topic was to “Tell Everything,” which at first blush, might imply that one “spill their guts” in any situation where “stark honesty” might be implied. It is neither kind nor beneficial to all concerned to seek this type of honesty. If your wife prepares a disappointing meal, in fact one of the worse meals in memory, and inquires about it, nothing would be gained by your informing her that “it was one of the worst meals I have had in a long time.” Well, you were honest to tell everything to a fault! Tact and a concern for the well-fair of others sometimes mitigates against the need to “tell all” in every conceivable situation in life. Our very life experiences tell us this to be true. But to be certain, without deviation, if the truth is important to the situation, even if unpleasant, even if to our own detriment (did you make a mistake on this assignment, you would certainly answer truthfully) you must be truthful and not withhold critical information.

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