Here's The Truth About Lying At Work

Is there harm telling little white lies at work? Or can lying potentially destroy your career? Workplace experts weigh in.

Admit it. You’ve called in sick to work when you weren’t officially down with the flu or some other contagious illness. It’s a common fib, especially around major sporting events.

A global survey by Workforce Management company Kronos found that as many as 58% of employees call in sick on days they want to watch or attend a sporting event. International competitions, like the FIFA World Cup, tend to boost employee absence rates even though 80% admit to feeling guilty for doing it.

This very simple kind of twisting the truth can cost organizations 8.7% of payroll each year, according to the study. Though not on the scale of Bernie Madoff’s multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme, Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business says lying is incredibly common across the board. “There is so much lying on financial statements that Dodd-Frank was passed to get CEOs to attest to the truthfulness of their financial statements,” Pfeffer says.

That said, Pfeffer argues some of the best leaders are the best liars. “Think of Steve Jobs’s reality distortion field and Larry Ellison,” he notes. David Kaplan's book The Silicon Boys detailed Ellison's proclivity to proclaim a product available when it wasn't--vaporware as it is called in the software industry, explains Pfeffer. 

“To some extent, truth-telling may be impossible,” Pfeffer contends. His reasoning:

  1. We remember selectively
  2. The best leaders are great at self-deception
  3. A story repeated often enough becomes indistinguishable in the mind of its teller from the truth
  4. Many untruths simply smooth over relationships

It may be inevitable, but does that make it okay to lie at work? That depends.

Sweet Little Lies

Take the case of Anne Moertel, a Chicago-based designer and creative strategist for Healthy Schools Campaign. Moertel tells Fast Company that she’s told her colleagues white lies like: "I actually don't know how to use Excel, sorry! I went to art school. Can I send you a Google doc and you can put it in Excel for me?" 

Part of it is true, she says, because she did go to art school. But she says she knows how to use Excel; just not very well. “I don't feel that it's a necessary skill for my position,” she says. 

Moertel makes similar claims for using Word. “These excuses help me all the time because I don't waste my time using new tools and can focus my time on my work,” she says. "No one has ever questioned it."

Others, like David Johnson, lied to gain trust. Back in 1998 when he started a security company, he didn’t want anyone to know he was a one-man operation. “It was all about being big and getting more venture capital,” he explains. So Johnson went to name his business “Johnson and Associates,” except that name was taken. That wasn't a problem for Johnson.

“I decided to add a rich investor type of name,” he says, so he opened the phone book and randomly put his finger on the name “Sloane.” The official name was Johnson, Sloane, and Associates which later became JSA, he says.

“People trusted big companies,” Johnson maintains, especially other big companies who he was eyeing to add to his client list. Johnson grew the business until retiring in 2006. He’s now at the helm of another startup Breadstand that sells high-end espresso machines on a monthly subscription basis, and he doesn’t rely on having a huge staff to impress prospective clients.

How Lying Hurts

If you ask Dana Manciagli, lying is never okay. Manciagli, a coach and author of Cut the Crap, Get a Job, spent 30 years at companies such as Microsoft, Kodak, and IBM. She says that the risk of getting caught in a lie at work is higher than ever, thanks to automated systems that track staff as they move through tasks like customer service, sales, and other interactions.

“Corporate policies that we sign on day one as an employee have gotten more specific and more stringent,” she adds. That’s because past lies, like moonlighting, have been discovered and dealt with in employee guidelines to prevent future infractions. Oftentimes, staffers plead in defense that their moonlighting gig is “just a hobby.”

“Even in a small company, employees should ask their manager, review your 'hobby' with the human resources manager, and get a letter of approval,” she advises. “The excuse 'I didn’t know that' will not hold up with your manager, their manager, or the president. And certainly won’t hold up in a court of law."

Manciagli says she believes lying can and will hurt your career. “Promotions--more and more--are based on soft skills as much as the financial metrics,” she says, recalling an incident where one senior director of marketing would only show up for her own sessions at client presentations, claiming it was her son’s birthday. “Everyone knew she had one son, but he had eight birthdays in one year,” says Manciagli, pointing out this person was no longer considered for promotions.

“Your reputation as a high-integrity, ethical, and honest person are keys to your success,” she notes. Jason (name changed), a finance director at a small company, kept reporting that he’d filed monthly and quarterly documentation, says Manciagli. When management discovered he hadn’t been doing the work, he was promptly fired.

But it didn’t end there, Manciagli reports. “Because Seattle is such a close-knit family of VCs and startups, Jason had a bad reputation, and therefore had a hard time finding another job.”

Stop the Lies

In Jason’s case, he may have been overwhelmed and too embarrassed to ask for help. To foster an environment where people don’t feel like they have to lie to succeed, Leslie Ungar, an executive coach and president of Electric Impulse Communications recommends looking up.

“It is not so much about those lower on the organizational chart lying to those above,” she says. "It is more about those above setting up a culture that does not reward honesty.” Lying can become a tactical act, she says, when those in higher positions surround themselves with people who tell them what they want to hear, not what they need to hear.

Pfeffer, the Stanford professor, says he’s tackling the subject in an upcoming book Leadership B.S. His premise is simple: “If we want to create a different world, we need to much more clearly acknowledge the realities of the one we are in.”

[Image: Flickr user Carmella Fernando]

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