The head of a company pays his employees to tell him the truth. What's next? Promotions based on merit? investigates.


I'm not a businessman or even an MBA, or, for that matter, a guy who can keep straight the difference between bulls and bears. But I have to say that as business ideas go, this one sounds pretty wacky.

My local paper reports that the CEO of a company called Enterprise Inc. will give $50 to employees who ask him the toughest questions. He says it's a method to solicit honesty.

Bosses seeking honesty from underlings? Have you ever heard of such a thing? What, is this guy crazy? It's a little like the dunking clown paying you to throw the ball at him.

Oh, sure, on the surface it may seem better than other business practices, such as, say, firing. But the fact is that, honesty, generally speaking, is a bad policy.

What good can come from a husband telling his wife that he doesn't like her new haircut, for instance? Or from a wife telling a husband that his sense of humor drives her batty?

How many dinner parties would be ruined by honesty? "Linda, this is possibly the worst pasta dish I've ever had the misfortune to put into my mouth." "Jerry, your stories are uninteresting and you tell them poorly." Is that what we want?

Consider the havoc that would be wreaked upon our judicial system. "Law, shmaw," judges would intone. "I have a political philosophy. You knew that when you appointed me. That's why you appointed me. So I figure it's my job to twist the arguments beyond recognition so that they conform to the way I view things politically. OK, what's next on the docket?"

Disrobing the law of the illusion that it is interpreted without bias would only result in public cynicism. All right, so maybe that's a little far-fetched. But I think you catch my meaning.

How would the world operate if nations told the truth to one another? "Our country doesn't like your country," one leader might tell another. "And we never did. We're thinking of wiping you off the face of the earth." This just doesn't strike me as sound foreign policy.

When I read the story about the company's honesty policy, it reminded me of those encounter groups wherein people are supposed to reveal how they really feel about one another. The encounters start out all touchy-feely, but wind up in a brawling mosh pit of oatmeal-colored sweaters and relaxed-fit jeans.

In a civilized society, friends don't let friends tell them the truth about themselves.

In the workplace, especially, honesty just breeds chaos. One of the time-honored ways for employees to spend their workday is grousing and scheming. Management has committed many crimes against workers,but how, in good conscience, can it take away the one thing that makes the workplace bearable - kvetching about the boss behind his back?

What's next? Promoting people based on merit? Providing edible food in the company cafeteria? You see where this leads, don't you? Personally, if I were a boss, I'd pay my employees fifty bucks to keep it to themselves.

I blame casual Fridays.

Letting people dress down only encourages them to become more relaxed. Next thing you know, they think they can let their hair down, too, figuratively speaking. They come to believe that the company atmosphere isn't quite so rigid, that they really are supposed to think outside the box, to invent new paradigms and all that.

Think of what would happen to the service industry if honesty were adopted as an operating business premise. "Are you sure you really need that high-priced kitchen gizmo?" a sales clerk would ask. "It's expensive, takes up valuable space on your counter, and breaks down after two and a half months."

Needless to say, the economy would come crashing down.

Whatever happened to the old-fashioned values? Like, for example, managing by fear and intimidation.

Honesty as an operating philosophy in the workplace falls into the category of a utopian idea. As with other utopian ideas throughout history, encouraging honesty at work seems laudable. But it's just not workable on a day-to-day basis. That's why such ideas are called utopian.

Now don't get me wrong. I believe honesty has its place. Like when somebody gets fired, for example. "Ned, you're lazy, sloppy, and your pants are hemmed too high. Don't let the door hit you on the way out." "Well, Bob, thanks for sharing. And let me say that everybody laughs behind your back at your bad ties, your kids are ugly, and the ever-expanding universe of your armpit sweat possesses sci-fi powers that mesmerize the staff. See ya."

Still, the way this whole crazy world is going these days, this positive approach, crazy as it seems, might just catch on.

Me, I hope it does. Because it could lead to a whole new career. I'd love to be an honesty consultant. If a boss really wants honesty, he can't expect it for a measly fifty bucks handed out to an employee. If the employee receives only $50 for saying or asking something that doesn't sit well with the big guy, the employee might be targeted as a potential troublemaker and assigned the new opening in Siberia. If he really wants the truth, a CEO should offer a year's salary. And that's too expensive a proposition for any company.

Enter the honesty consultant, i.e., me.

I would hang out with a CEO and ask him the questions his timid yes-man employees are too afraid to ask. I'd use a sliding scale for my services: The more you pay, the more honesty you get.

For example, it’s pretty easy telling the boss that his proposed reorganization of senior management is flawed. That service would be on the low end of the scale. Telling him that his belittling and meddlesome ways depress workplace morale would cost more. And telling him that his fashion sense is gruesome and his parties boring would garner the big bucks.

I’ve always prided myself on my ability to criticize others. And I think a CEO would come to value my services.

Of course, it’s possible I’d find that the company was well run and the boss was a good guy. In that case, I’d tell him that, too. Even if it’s not what he wanted to hear. Of course, it’s not what he’d be paying me for, but I’d tell him anyway. Because I’d just want to tell him the truth.

Honest.