People often ask how I get people to tell me things that they won't share with their manager, boss, or Human Resources. Part of my success is certainly that as an outsider, I present much less of a threat to an employee or staff member. Another reason may be an esoteric quality I bring that makes people feel safe. But beyond those intangibles which I cannot help you to acquire, here are six tips for bringing about complete and honest responses from those you desire.
Getting Them to Be Honest
1. Start by trusting them- In an effort to be discrete or to investigate a problem, Managers and HR often withhold their reasons for asking questions of staff. This creates a level of fear and discomfort in the employee, as it says, "Trust me" but not so subtly says, "I don't trust you". If you want your staff to trust you, start by trusting them. Before you begin asking them a list of questions, tell them as much as you can about what you're investigating and why their involvement is important. If you can't give full disclosure, help them to understand the reasons you can't say more.
2. Tell them why it's important - What is obvious to you may be obscured to someone else. If you want to know the truth, make sure the other person understands why you need to know. For example, if you're asking about an employee's work hours you may get resistance or half-truths due to fear that you're investigating claims for over-time. If you explained that due to recent crime in the area you want to create a "buddy-system" where no one leaves the building alone, you would receive a much warmer and more honest response.
3. Address their reasons for holding back
As you share what you can with your staff, address the known reasons they might resist sharing information with you. Step into their shoes. Could they be afraid of retribution? If the information they share leads to termination of another employee, will they benefit or be hurt by that change? Knowing why they would hold back allows you to attend to that resistance, and make them more comfortable in sharing what they know.
4. Confront dishonesty
We can all sense when someone isn't forthcoming or truthful with us. (By that same token, so can they! See tip #1). Confront this directly but respectfully, and avoid making accusations. I address this by saying - "I'm having a hard time believing...." Or "I'm sorry, that doesn't make sense to me". Then I press them to explain the situation better or differently.
5. Remove judgment
In asking for honesty, we're sometimes asking people to be vulnerable to us. When they must admit to a mistake, a lie, a bad decision, or an embarrassing detail, they are much more likely to do so if they feel safe. While you may not always be able to provide confidentiality or protection, you should always be able to offer acceptance and understanding. I find this, when done with complete sincerity, will help almost anyone to tell the truth.
6. Let them know of consequences
Sometimes there are consequences to what someone tells you. They may be in jeopardy, a co-worker or boss could get into trouble. When there is a consequence lingering, tell them what it is before you ask for the truth. The purpose here is not to threaten but to allay fear. Most of us fear the unknown much more than the known; by giving them this information, you help them to decide if they can cope with the aftermath. Sharing information about the consequence also works to establish trust and shows you respect their ability to come forward even in light of an unpleasant outcome.
As you work to establish trust in your workforce, keep in mind that fear is the biggest impediment to honesty. As you succeed in your efforts to dispel fear, you will be rewarded with the trust and honesty you seek.