How do you define honesty?

A question I love to ask when interviewing candidates for a job is, how do you define honesty and how do you live it? Typically I get a response of, “telling the truth.” That’s it, nothing more. Often the candidate will pause for a moment with a bit of a surprised look on their face. Obviously they had never thought about this before or wondering if this is a trick question. In full transparency, its not a trick question, I really want to know what it means to them. Often my hiring teams will ask me why I ask this question. The answer to that question and what honesty means to me, is what I hope to layout in this essay.

First, what does honesty mean to me? I certainly agree that honesty is telling the truth, but it doesn’t stop there, it is much more than this. Honesty defines my character. One of my church leaders put it this way: “Without the quality of character of which I speak, the fabric of our society will disintegrate into ugliness and chaos. That quality of character is personal honesty” (Gordon B. Hinckley). He continued in explaining without honesty, “Conscience chokes, character withers, self-respect vanishes, integrity dies.”

Honesty is perhaps the first virtue. We cannot gain other virtues or values without it. Some confuse honesty with integrity. Integrity comes from Latin, integer, meaning pure, whole, complete. I think of it this way. Integrity is the sum of all my virtues or values, in which honesty is the primary part. I cannot have integrity without honesty, nor can I have virtue or my other values that I adhere to without honesty. In other words, honesty defines me. More than just telling the truth, honesty should also dictate my actions and behavior.

As a leader if I expect my team to follow a rule, then I should also follow the rule. Do I hide information for my personal gain, if so am I really being honest, I don’t think so. Do I use the company copy machine for my own personal use? Do I purposefully exaggerate information or mislead others to accomplish my desires? These actions are not the actions of honesty.

In my career and personal life, some have criticized me as being predictable because of my honest nature. I have taken this as a great complement, as the opposite would not be desirable, especially for someone in a leadership role. My team needs to know that I will be consistent, this helps them to have an environment of confidence in their decision making and interactions. Otherwise chaos would ensue.

Trust requires honesty in order to exist. Without honesty and trust, nothing will be accomplished except the disintegration of relationships, and the flourishment of selfishness and fear. We cannot steal and be honest. Infidelity and honest do not coexist. Is not dishonesty the root of most of the worlds problems, from politics to home and family. Imagine what a world it would be if all people were true to honesty.

Some years ago, I parked my car in a dark street. While doing so I accidently bumped another car. It was difficult to tell if I had caused any damage to the other vehicle. So I walked up to the house the car was parked in front of and knocked. A grizzly large man answered the door. He seemed very intimidating, but I told him of what had happened. I told him I was willing to pay for any damage perceived or real. His response was a bit surprised, I think he thought I was going to sell him something. He told me not to worry as he didn’t really care about that car. I have had many other times (not necessarily involving a car) in which it was extremely important to me to confess the truth and offer any reparations. Perhaps no one else cared, many times no one else would even know but me, however I knew that my failure to act in accordance with the principle of honesty would change me. No longer would I be able to think of myself as being honest, my self-esteem would certainly wither and decay, and I would be a lesser-man.

Honesty has been a moral compass that has guided me on numerous occasions. When in doubt, be honest. I wish I could say that doing so has always led to positive outcomes, or rather the outcome that I had hoped for. I can look back though and see how being honest has always helped me to be true and to be a man of integrity, even if what I had hoped for did not come about.

So, why do I ask this question to potential employees? Because I need team members that I can trust. I need to know that I can rely upon them. If they are going to try and hide the truth, or falsely blame others, they have the potential to destroy my team. Frankly, I cannot think of a more important question to ask. It concerns me when people have never thought about what honesty is or what it means to them. I think of all those times that honesty has been my guide, what has been their guide if it were not honesty?

Hiram Seth Whitmer is a visionary leader and influencer with a passion for executing the complete turnaround of healthcare organizations