COMMENTARY 984.5: Do I Have to Tell Everything?

Should a job applicant properly withhold information about a criminal record or termination from a previous job? Should a woman starting a new relationship 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 or her 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 a relationship, secrets discovered later can be fatal.

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

But, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men, not everyone can handle the truth. So why sabotage ourselves 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. In a person of conscience, they can create guilt, fear, and insecurity.

Trust is a state of mind, but 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 to whom you denied knowledge feel betrayed? If so, the honorable thing is to fess up.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.