Is Honesty ‘the Best Policy’?
Integrity consistently rates as one of the most highly prized virtues in the workplace. Recruiting and management organisations, researchers and academics, business schools, etc. all emphasise the importance of integrity. Thousands of books and articles about integrity have been written. Organisations such as Transparency International or KPMG Global are dedicated to researching integrity in society and the workplace…. But still, corruption continues.
Where I live, in Moldova, we have a “National Authority for Integrity,” which collects and checks the wealth declarations of those in positions of public authority. The “Servants of the People” have to prove their integrity by submitting information about all their possessions. The problem is that the verifiers also need to be checked; they are scrutinised by investigative journalists and often proved to be not guiltless or beyond corruption themselves! In industries, organisations or governments where there is no scrutiny, various forms of corruption take place with a destructive force affecting our lives as individuals, our workplaces and our societies.
There’s a problem. On one side we can see the importance of integrity, on the other side we can see the persistence of corruption. And this raises the question “What exactly do we mean by integrity?”
There are two ways of understanding integrity according to the dictionary:
- The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles – honesty, uprightness, probity, rectitude, honour, honourableness, good character, principle(s), ethics, morals, righteousness, fairness, sincerity, truthfulness, trustworthiness and more.
- The state of being whole and undivided - wholeness, coherence, cohesion, togetherness, solidarity - in other words being true to yourself!
The Latin origin of the word is integer, meaning ‘intact, whole’. But if everyone is busy being “true to themselves” and showing integrity with their own beliefs or values, then who is to say what objective, actual real integrity actually is? Integrity cannot be a purely individual virtue, it must somehow be agreed upon by a wider community or society. What I say and do, how I behave, isn’t only ‘a personal thing’ that should not concern others, it always affects those around us. Similarly, institutional integrity isn’t enough if it doesn’t alter the values of individuals. That explains why some places, like my country, have a national authority for integrity, but sadly despite that “authority” the problem of corruption persists. Integrity needs to be owned by individuals, by workplaces and by societies.
Integrity has to be built on a commonly agreed value system. But in our pluralistic society with different value systems determined by culture, context or individual life philosophy, there is ambiguity about truth to the point at which we throw our hands up and declare “That’s your truth, but this is mine.” And in the absence of any absolute notion of truth… and its associated life values integrity becomes an empty box, shaped and filled according to individual preference.
We may still believe honesty to be ‘the best policy’, but who’s honesty is it? Is it honesty expedient to our own desired outcomes? Is it ‘true to myself’? Or is it representing strong ethical values that will find common ground with others around us - perhaps even regardless of their beliefs?
Take a few moments and think of someone you would describe as a person of integrity from your working life. What is it about them that makes them special? How can you learn to develop similar integrity in your life?
Written by Rodica Roșior and Tim Vickers, January 2021