Email and Lying At Work

In this Internet age, it is common for people to misrepresent themselves on chat lines or dating sites and the like. “Virtually” increasing one’s wealth, or embellishing or misrepresenting one’s attractiveness and accomplishments are common lies people tell on-line during off hours.

However, a new study by researchers Charles Naquin of DePaul University, Liuba Belkin of Lehigh University and Terri Kurtzberg at Rutgers University demonstrated that lying at work on e-mail is more of a temptation than was previously thought.  The authors observed in their study that even though the liar would be caught, those who chose to fib were more likely to do so when corresponding by e-mail than when using old-fashioned paper and pen.

In a series of three studies, the researchers set up situations in which graduate level business students and experienced managers in school part time were put to the test.  Overwhelmingly, close to 90% of the participants using e-mail lied, compared to over 63% of participants using paper and pen in a mock negotiation. Study participants were asked to allocate monies to partners knowing that only they knew the exact amount of money originally in the pool.  Even when the researchers told participants in advance that the actual amount of money to be allocated would be revealed eventually to the partners, they chose to lie more when using e-mail than when corresponding with paper and pen.

The findings point to a disturbing trend when it comes to the use of e-mail for anything from contract negotiations, to legal matters to mundane, everyday requests and tasks conducted via this medium.  The researchers note that people appear to hold themselves to a lower standard of honesty when communicating online.

But it is hard to fathom how this can be, especially when many employees often espouse values of honesty, integrity and sincerity on the job and in life.  Violating one’s values in the workplace for many staff, would seem to contradict everything they stand for.

Yet it happens and here’s why:

Theorists believe it is relatively easy to hold a set of internal moral standards that by all accounts would seem upstanding, yet still find ourselves behaving in ways that are inconsistent with these values in some situations.  The psychological means by which this occurs, is through what psychologist Albert Bandura termed “moral disengagement.”  This is the act of absolving ourselves of guilt by distancing ourselves from the harmful consequences of our behaviour and actually readjusting our perceptions of the conduct.  Self-serving behaviour, for example, can be justified on the grounds that somehow we are benefiting others by our deed while downplaying the negative implications for them.


According to the researchers, e-mail, as a communications medium is seen as less permanent than other means of interaction even though it is harder to erase and control than other forms of communication.  Also, e-mail feels more fleeting and less personal, and appears to require less restraint on the part of the sender; hence the ease with which people send angry e-mails where they might think twice if they were to have a face-to-face confrontation.

So the lowering of our standards when we use e-mail appears to be due to the medium itself rather than some kind of moral decay.

So, if it’s easier to lie on e-mail and justify it to oneself, what can employers do to re-introduce notions of honesty and integrity into the workplace? The threat of getting caught in a lie doesn’t cause staff pause nor does the consequence of uncomfortable feelings like shame, betrayal and disloyalty provide reason to ponder one’s actions when using e-mail.

The researchers counsel employers to consider what result they are trying to achieve and then choose a communication medium that most heightens the chances of success.  Perhaps contract negotiations and subsequent document editing should be conducted via paper and pencil along with real estate offers. Further to this, the authors note that obtaining online peer reviews nets more negative evaluations than paper and pencil ones, so leaning toward using pen and paper for performance evaluations may net better results.  When truth, fairness, accuracy and good faith are at stake, using email may be contraindicated.

Also, educating staff and managers about how e-mail tends to lower ethical standards and to watch oneself accordingly may be necessary.  Taking what someone puts in an e-mail with a few grains of salt, recognizing that the on-line context lends its self to less-than-upstanding behaviour, may be important.  While some may argue that modern society is in decay, we’d do well to remember to respect the different means by which we communicate and understand that moral rectitude in some contexts is easier than in others.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership.  Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.  They can be contacted at:

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