Liar, Liar, Pantsuit on Fire!

UPDATED: November 13, 2012
PUBLISHED: November 13, 2012

When I worked in an office as a magazine editor, the staff had weekly update meetings in which we’d go around the room and share the status of our individual projects. “I’m just waiting to get that feature story back from fact-checking,” I’d report. Or, “I haven’t been able to get very far on that piece because none of the sources have called me back.” Sometimes it was, “I’m just running a little late turning that column in.”

Nothing was remarkable about these weekly meetings (although sometimes there were doughnuts!). The same kind of office gathering was likely happening at the same time in thousands of similar conference rooms across the country. But what should be noted, and what I’ve never publicly admitted before, is that I lied at probably every single one. The piece I was waiting to get back from the fact-checking department? I had only turned it in to them about 12 seconds before the meeting. Those sources who didn’t call me? It was probably because I never called them in the first place. And running a little late on the column meant I hadn’t started writing it. Don’t get me wrong, I was diligent and punctual with plenty of my work, but there was always one nagging, straggling assignment that I just hadn’t gotten to yet. And instead of coming clean, I chose to cover my you-know-what.

And I’m certainly not alone in my workplace truth-bending. In a nationally representative survey of more than 1,200 American workers*, SUCCESS asked professionals of all types to answer the question, Do you lie at work? Read on for the surprising results that prompted us to ask, Is lying at work ever OK? Could it even be necessary?

Lying About Lying

Asking people to tell the truth about lying is slippery business, like trying to catch fish with your hands. Why would we expect anyone who lies at work to answer our questions honestly? To try to get the most truthful results, we assured participants complete anonymity. The interviews were conducted over the phone, to avoid the discomfort of face-to-face confessions. The workers we talked to had absolutely nothing to lose by coming clean.

Of course, the truth can be hard to admit even to ourselves. “Nobody thinks of his or her self as dishonest,” says Robert Feldman, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships, even if they lie frequently. So while we’ll all confess that we tell white lies occasionally, admitting to willful, creative deception breaks the illusion that we have of ourselves as honest people, he says. We go to great lengths to avoid the shame that comes with acknowledging this dishonesty, even to a nameless, faceless person on the telephone.

So to tease some more nuanced answers out of our survey respondents, we followed each “Have you ever lied about…?” question with a “Have you ever known anyone who lied about…?” query. Not surprisingly, the “yes” responses to the latter question were, across the board, significantly higher than to the former. For example, only 8 percent of respondents said they’d ever accepted praise for a workplace idea or accomplishment that wasn’t theirs, but a whopping 60 percent have known someone guilty of such credit theft.

How is it possible that we all know someone who has lied when none of us are doing the lying? “Knowing ‘someone’ who has lied allows people to admit to lying without really admitting it,” Feldman says. “It’s a surrogate question for their own behavior.” If everyone was completely honest, he says, the results would likely show that nearly 100 percent of the respondents lie at work. Taking the higher results of the surrogate question into consideration allows us to get closer to the reality of personal culpability.

White Lies, Gray Areas

We’ll start out nice and easy, with those “harmless” little white lies—“I love your new dress!” or “That’s a great idea, I’ll look into that”—that seem more sweet than sinful. We utilize white lies like this so as not to offend our co-workers and to keep our office relationships amicable. It’s no surprise, then, that these types of fibs pulled the biggest numbers, with 59 percent of our respondents admitting to them. Not only are peacekeeping white lies extremely common, they’re also the easiest type of lie to cop to. Admitting to a few false niceties only says that you are a person who tries to make others feel good about themselves.

In fact, Feldman says that “socially competent people lie the most.” Frank, unsolicitous folks don’t go as far (in business, at least) as those who know how to grease the social wheels with a little bit of white lying. “Nobody likes someone who is blunt and non-complimentary,” he notes. If a co-worker you dislike asks you to get drinks after work, you wouldn’t just say “no.” You’d make up an excuse as to why you couldn’t make it so that he didn’t feel bad. In that way, lying can ease work relationships. To wit, in our survey, it was the most educated and highly paid who were most likely to tell such white lies. “I told my boss that I’m a big fan of his favorite baseball team, even though I’m not,” admitted one SUCCESS reader. Though untrue, the lie gave her an “in,” a point of connection, with her supervisor.

Lying Your Way to the Top

But do we really have to lie to get along with our co-workers? Couldn’t she have found an honest common interest to bond them? Perhaps, but she’s certainly not the only one who lies to make friends at work.

In one study from the University of Massachusetts, strangers were paired and asked to converse and get to know each other over the course of 10 minutes. Their discussions were videotaped and when reviewed later with a researcher, the participants were able to acknowledge points during the meeting when they may have bent the truth. The results? In a single 10-minute introduction, 60 percent of participants later admitted lying, averaging nearly three (2.92) falsehoods apiece. Some of the participants lied up to 12 times—more than one lie a minute!—about everything from how they were feeling that day to where they were from to what they like to do for fun.

It seems that, when presenting ourselves to others, we instinctively fib to ease the interaction and to make ourselves seem more appealing. In a separate study of adolescents and lying, Feldman and colleagues found that preteens who are able to lie the most effectively also happen to be the most popular of their peers.

Sam*, a sales executive for a major media company in New York City, told us how he once lied to appease his boss. “This past year he put together our external sales presentation. He included this animated video in it that he thought was a unique way to showcase our position in the marketplace. I hated it. It was really hokey, but it was obvious that he spent a lot of time on it and thought it was the coolest thing since sliced bread. So I told him I thought it was awesome, but then proceeded to exclude it from all of my sales presentations. He works in a different state, so he never knew.” Sam was able to keep his boss happy and still earn new business—a win-win lie, in his opinion.

Lying may correlate with popularity and business success, but does that make it right? If we lived in a vacuum, it would be easy to say that any kind of lying is patently wrong, says Randy Cohen, famed ethicist and author of Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything. But we don’t. “We are a social species. We lie to smooth things over and get along. Sometimes lying is the right thing to do.” In fact, “you should lie sometimes,” Cohen says. Example: “If an employee’s work is even slightly better than you hoped, or if someone has shown improvement, it’s the right thing to do to go a little overboard with praise. A little bit of over-praise goes a long way,” Cohen says. “It’s a motivational tool. Humans need, and respond to, positive feedback.”

Cough, Cough!

That’s not to say we all get a free pass to lie with impunity. But when it comes to the ethics of lying, “the question shouldn’t be, ‘Is it OK to lie?’ ” Cohen says. “The question should be, ‘When is it OK to lie?’ ” Unfortunately, the answers usually aren’t so easy. Take, for example, calling in sick. A third of our survey participants copped to taking time off of work for a “mental break” while telling their supervisor that they had a minor illness. A whopping two-thirds said they know someone who has done that.

And Cohen says that such fakery is justified. “We all have amazingly complicated lives, taking care of children, elderly parents, communities, and ourselves. Ordinary human existence demands time for things other than work. But America is terrible about sick days, parental leave and vacation time in general. When you deprive people of that time, it’s inevitable that people will lie.” His solution: “When you create circumstances in which people can act honorably, it’s surprising how often they will.”

For business owners and supervisors, that means allowing for more flexible work schedules, being sympathetic about unexpected requests for time off, and being honest about your own personal time requirements. Instead of telling your juniors that you’re having lunch with a client, for example, tell them the truth that you’re running home to catch your daughter’s dance recital. Sam (the same guy who lied to his boss about the presentation material) knows his juniors are faking colds when they call in sick. “I really don’t mind as long as they don’t make a habit of it. We all have to do what we have to do.”

Gateway Lies

Feldman disagrees. “The problem with lying is that it perpetuates more lies.” When you return to work the day after a “sick” day, he says, concerned colleagues may ask how you’re feeling or even push you for details on your illness. You could find yourself fabricating symptoms and remedies that never occurred, doctor’s appointments never made, and stories of woe to make your excuse seem believable. And that level of lying breaks down the fundamental integrity of the workplace, Feldman adds.

One of my friends (who happens to be a successful writer, great dad and general stand-up guy) was honest about the lies he told when he was younger and just starting out in the workforce: “I perfected a sick-day strategy of seeding a lie ahead of time. For example, if I knew I didn’t want to go in on Wednesday, on Monday I’d start complaining of back pain or maybe fake a bit of a cough, embellishing a little more on Tuesday. That way, by the time I called in sick on Wednesday, it was totally believable. Plus, I was often complimented for being such a trooper and pushing through those first two days. ‘Take care of yourself!’ the email responses would say.” That’s not all. He once invented a major health condition, repeatedly leaving early and coming in late due to “doctors’ appointments.” “When my boss asked if everything was OK, I just stared off into the distance and sighed, then said ‘I think so.’ He never said anything more about it.”

“That’s a little beyond the pale,” Cohen says of this elaborate deception. But it’s exactly the kind of big lie that small lies can breed, Feldman believes. Only 4 percent of our survey participants admitted to inventing an ill family member in an attempt to get more vacation time, but nearly a third (a third!) said they know of someone who has. Could lying about a sick day be a “gateway lie” to whoppers about ailing aunts and uncles?

Plus, taking a sick day when you’re not really sick—even without all the embellishments—could get you fired… if you get caught. “I’ve seen people call in sick, then check in at Rigby Field on Foursquare or get tagged on Facebook in someone else’s fishing photo,” says Brad Karsh, president at JB Training Solutions, an employee development company in Chicago, and author of Manager 3.0: A Millennial’s Guide to Rewriting the Rules of Management. “That’s thumbing your nose at your management in a very public way and it is grounds for termination. It breaks down trust. And trust is really valuable in the workplace.” His advice: If you want to be trusted, don’t lie (or else steer clear of social media if you do!).

Keeping Up Appearances

Ironically, many of us lie at the office in order to be trusted. Why do you think I lied at my weekly update meetings? If I had revealed that I was behind in my work, my bosses would think I couldn’t handle the responsibilities of my position. “We all try to protect the image we project to other people,” Feldman says. “We think of ourselves as competent people and we lie to maintain this.”

This phenomenon is also affectionately known as CYA (covering your… well, you know). And plenty of employees do it. Twenty percent of our respondents have blamed their tardiness on bad traffic or another commuting problem when, in reality, they just left late (more than half know someone who does this). Karsh calls this “stealing time” from your employer, but who hasn’t been delayed at home by a crying child or a coffee spill?

Cohen believes that in an office culture in which employees are viewed as humans and not just workers, we’d be less inclined to make up excuses. You could come in late and say, “I’m sorry, my kid begged me for some extra snuggle time this morning, and I couldn’t say no,” and your colleagues would sympathize instead of begrudge. “People are actually more likely to be loyal and committed to a job that offers them that respect,” Cohen says.

Another CYA example: During a meeting, your boss asks you to look into something and report back at the next meeting. You promptly forget this request. At the next meeting, your boss asks what you found. You freeze, widen your eyes, flare your nostrils, and glance side-to-side before recovering your composure. “I’m on it!” you might lie. “I’m just putting the finishing touches on the memo and will get it to you later today.” Almost a third of our study participants say they have covered up their forgetfulness at work by lying.

More Money, More Lies

Those guiltiest of that CYA lie? Folks in the higher income bracket ($100,000-plus a year), who presumably have more to do to make the big bucks. High earners are also more likely to lie—20 percent compared to the average of 13—when a crisis erupts at work. To protect co-workers and themselves, they’ll blame an outside person or factor for the snafu.

And, of course, maybe what we’re seeing here is beyond simple mistakes. Because we’re talking here about cover-ups of wrongdoing amongst the highest earners, and one in five tell us they have done this, is it so surprising that lies at major financial institutions brought down the entire American economy? Perhaps as people get richer, they get more fearful of losing all they have and something happens to their morals. It’s similar to the old adage that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If these are the kinds of things our wealthiest American workers are hiding the truth about, it is certainly neither innocent nor excusable.

And strangely, this population of workers—people who can more than afford their own paper clips and pens—are the biggest culprits when it comes to taking home office supplies for personal use. A whopping 41 percent of them rummage through the supply closet, compared to just 20 percent of those making between $20,000 and $40,000, proving either that liars are more successful… or that this group feels more entitled. And that is a very provocative finding indeed.

As for me and my own CYA lies, Cohen says this: “I’d be shocked if every other person in that conference room, including your bosses, wasn’t lying right along with you.” But does that make it acceptable? While Cohen was generous enough to reassure me that I was probably not alone in my fibbing (which our survey results confirm!), he also noted that “sometimes, you have to do the right thing even if it’s contrary to your self-interest.” And I did not. Plus, had I been honest about my inability to finish my work on time, Karsh pointed out, I could have received help instead of more assignments. And maybe my colleagues would have felt more confident exposing their work difficulties, too.

Then again, if my supervisors knew that I was consistently behind schedule, would I have been promoted? Would I have stayed in the industry long enough to make the contacts I needed to go freelance? Would I be writing this story about lying? 

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