There’s been a lot of talk lately about alternate facts and fake news. In other words, lying. Yet, it turns out many of us manufacture our own brands of fake news and alternate facts, especially at work. Everything from faking social niceties, to calling in sick when healthy, to padding a resume, the temptations to fib abound.
Most lying occurs when employees feel a need to protect their social identities.
However, there are clear lines when lying isn’t acceptable at work
To listen to the interview please click on the audio file below:
Lying is unethical behaviour at work, yet many workers are guilty of it—why is that?
It’s because a lot of lying on the job is relationship-based. Cheating, stealing, or calling in sick when you’re not is unethical, and workers are fired for things like stealing from the till or abusing sick time. But most lies at work are designed to protect a social identity. Workers lie to continue seeing themselves in a positive light and to be held in high esteem by others.
What types of lies do workers tell when they’re protecting their social identities?
There are lies to facilitate relationships, like when someone speaks proudly of an accomplishment and another congratulates them while thinking what they did wasn’t that great.
Then there’s lies to appear competent. For example, I worked with a manager whose employee seemed to take forever to finish things. The manager was at her wits end. Eventually she found out the worker had been lying. She said she knew how to use the company software but couldn’t so, inputting anything took ages.
Other lies are meant to save co-worker’s feelings, like when your co-worker makes an embarrassing mistake in front of collogues, and you tell him it wasn’t that bad.
Is it really lying to try to make co-workers happy, maybe it’s just part of making it through a workday without hard feelings?
Lying is the giving of information you believe isn’t true and intending to deceive your co-worker or boss. White lies are still lies. But, while white lies are intended to deceive, they are not intended to harm your co-worker, so in that sense workers lie to create harmony.
The problem comes when the lie is used to avoid a hard conversation, like when a colleague gets a crummy evaluation and his team-mate commiserates by saying it’s not true, but privately, believes his co-worker does take too many short-cuts and the boss is bang-on.
But, being honest in this kind of situation can create conflict, how can that be good?
When deciding whether to lie or not, think about whether the lie is the best way to solve the problem and see if you can generate a truthful alternative to the lie.
In the example where the worker agreed with the boss’s evaluation, it’s important to think it through. The truth is the short-cutter’s behaviour was making his colleague’s job harder, so a truthful alternative may be best.
Consider saying something like: “Do you think he’s talking about what happens when you’re too pressed for time? I’ve noticed he makes me work on your stuff when there’s a deadline involved, which is hard because I’m too far behind on my own stuff, to take any more on.”
When are lies at work a no-no?
Anything illegal or unsafe, like saying you followed safety protocols and didn’t, or stealing stuff and then covering it up. In one organization, they put a new recruit on probation after he lied about tightening everything after a repair. He hadn’t and the senior technician discovered it.
Lying for selfish gain will be bad for you in the long run. There’s also lying about things that can harm the company. For example, an owner I worked with had a Director who got into the habit of inflating his budget numbers. He’d get a larger piece of the pie for his area, but the owner figured it out and he lost all credibility.
What should workers do if they catch a colleague or the boss lying?
Make sure it’s a lie and not a mistake or misunderstanding. Your colleague had to have known that the information they were giving wasn’t true, and they meant to deceive someone. If it’s not a misunderstanding or mistake, decide what harm has come from it. You may feel harmed, deceived or hurt, but what you are looking for is significant harm to your reputation, ability to do your job, safety or to the organization.
If you decide to discuss the lie, stay away from accusing someone of being a liar. Describe the situation, the harm and what can be done to rectify matters. Saying things like: “When you said you would have the job finished by Tuesday, and it wasn’t, the project was backed up and we lost money. Let’s figure this out so we don’t go through this again” helps shape a dialogue that is productive and honest.
But, not all organizations act swiftly when lying is discovered–what’s the downside for organizations when lying is allowed to continue?
Lying at work reduces trust and affects long term decision-making. It’s difficult to make good decisions based on false information.
Alternate facts, glossing over bad news, making things other than what they are holds organizations and institutions back. For example, I worked with a company where a couple of staff fudged their area’s earnings. By the time it was discovered, the company had lost a lot of money.