Lying at Work: Is it Ever Acceptable?

Emma Buckby

3 Sep 2016

Whether we like to admit it or not, most of us lie occasionally. Responding to a simple ‘how are you’ with an ‘I’m fine thanks’ rather than with a list of your latest medical ailments when we feel poorly is the norm in many cultures. We often call this social lying, which is used as a form of social courtesy.

So, lying at work – is it ever acceptable and under what conditions do you or your colleagues or managers believe it is acceptable?

When lying at work is acceptable

Telling little white lies or social lying is generally understood

Telling little white lies or social lying is understood, at least amongst people from the same cultural and social background, and is considered to be polite and good etiquette. But what about other types of lying?

Lying at Work

Lying about your opinion of a co-worker’s dress sense is one thing. But if that same colleague lies about something they were supposed to do on a project but didn’t, then the consequences can be very different.

In an article published by The BBC, motivations for lying are explored in greater detail. It is acknowledged that both employees and employers might lie and that the main reason is usually to avoid perceived (or real) negative consequences if the truth is told.

  • From an employer’s point of view, lying employees may be causing a range of problems, from fraud to stealing commercial secrets.
  • From an employee’s point of view, a lying employer may be showing a lack of trust or trying to hide bad news that could cause employees to react badly.

It is acknowledged that both employees and employers might lie and that the main reason is usually to avoid perceived (or real) negative consequences if the truth is told

How Can You Tell when Someone is Lying at Work?

The business of lie detecting is growing in the workplace. The growth of consultancy services, including those who use people from former military or interrogation backgrounds, are used by an increasing number of employers. So how easy is it to tell if someone is lying?

The BBC article reflects on research that states people can only tell if someone is lying 54% of the time

The BBC article reflects on research that states people can only tell if someone is lying 54% of the time. Often, people look to eye contact when judging if someone is lying. But how someone looks at you is only a part of the behaviour that is considered, and is often misinterpreted.

People lie in different ways, and may learn to control their eye contact so that they can fool many people into believing they are telling the truth when they are not.

Lying at work can easily be detected

Smiling, for example, looks very different depending on whether it is genuine or if it is forced

A more accurate way of detecting a lie is by observing body language, which is much harder to mask. Smiling, for example, looks very different depending on whether it is genuine or if it is forced. Backing up a forced smile with a less than credible story or a story that is told in a hesitant way can be another sign of lying.

For those organisations that look to the methods used by the CIA, they may be watching how people react to questions. Important characteristics that often signal a lie include throat clearing or making gestures near the throat.

The context of how a question is answered is also important. Avoiding the question, leaving an impression things are unrealistically good, behaving aggressively, or answering a question with another question or a non-answer may also be signs of lying.

Building a Healthy Work Environment

Most people do not automatically assume others are constantly lying to them. In fact, most people assume that the truth is being told until or unless they believe they have evidence to the contrary.

Most people assume that the truth is being told until or unless they believe they have evidence to the contrary

While a small dose of scepticism in the workplace can sometimes be a good thing, a healthy work environment needs to be:

  • Open
  • Honest
  • Collaborative

You might even genuinely be able to say that ‘things are fine’ more often – and mean it and not think you are lying at work!



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