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Why We Tell Lies at Work
By Christopher Bonanos
January 31, 2013 3:15 PM EST
Photographs by Image Source LTD/Getty Images

It’s a common observation that the lies and the coverup, not the initial misbehavior, are what take public figures down. You heard it during Watergate and the Lewinsky scandal, and last month, Lance Armstrong proved it all over again.

Photographs by Getty ImagesArmstrong, left, with megafraud Bernie Madoff, right, and memoir fabricator James Frey

The rest of us may not confess to Oprah, but to varying degrees we’ve all bent the truth in our careers. The standard measure, backed up by consistent studies, is that the average American tells one to two lies a day, and frequently at work. A University of Oxford behavioral economist, Johannes Abeler, working with a group of German colleagues, published a study in October which found that when contacted randomly at their homes by phone, most people will tell the truth even when doing so causes them to forfeit a small reward. Not so when they’re elsewhere: Roughly a third of people were dishonest when the experiment was tried in a lab setting. The researchers extrapolate that we’re more willing to lie in the office than at home. “If people are given wriggle room, as they are in office settings, they can convince themselves that their behavior isn’t fraudulent, and this doesn’t attack their sense of self,” says Abeler.

Most of the lying that happens at work is a simple matter of ass-covering. You forgot to do something or elided some onerous task, and a fib squeaks out: a traffic jam that cost you an hour, a “lost” e-mail, or some other missed connection, all in the interest of buying time to recover. “Most workplace lies aren’t actually antibusiness,” says David Shulman, associate professor at Lafayette College and author of From Hire to Liar: The Role of Deception in the Workplace. “They’re really in the interest of getting the job done.”

But darker motives do exist. Suzanne Garvin, a personal banker in Los Angeles, tells of an instance in which she mistakenly drew a large check from the wrong account. Her supervisor, a kindly looking older lady, had blown by Garvin’s desk and initialed the check without looking at the account number. When the error was discovered, the supervisor obscured her sign off and tried to blame Garvin. (She’d kept a photocopy of the check and quietly presented it during the inquisition that followed.) “Our bosses were disturbed and assured me they would look into it,” recalls Garvin. Yet the punishment was slight; just a brief talking to, no more.

While much of business is transparent, negotiations, in particular, tend to leave room for morally iffy gamesmanship. “A negotiator must be fair and truthful. On the other [hand] he must mislead his opponent,” writes James White, professor of law at Indiana University, in the American Bar Foundation Research Journal. In his 2007 MIT Sloan Management review article, “Negotiating With Liars,” Robert Adler outlines methods to protect against such craftiness, including the old ploy of asking questions to which you already know the answers, and straight up instructing your opponent to come clean. “Ask, ‘Is there something important that you know about this deal you haven’t told me?’ ” Adler writes.

Sins of omission are built in to office life. If you discover you’re pregnant and don’t tell your husband, your marriage has problems. If you wait a few months to tell your boss, you’re merely being sensible. Even more so if you flatter him when breaking the news: A 2011 study from Drexel University suggested that workers who sucked up with falsities were less stressed than their straight-shooting colleagues. In a broad survey done by the trade magazine PRWeek a few years ago, a quarter of PR executives admitted to lying on the job, and 39 percent copped to exaggeration. (Admittedly, the field involves keeping surfaces shiny for less-than-spotless clients.)

To keep an edge on competitors, it’s beneficial to safeguard proprietary information. The best companies are often wildly secretive—Coca-Cola’s recipe is 126 years old, and despite periodic “revelations” of half-correct formulas, only a couple of people really know what’s in it. Apple has been reported to spread false rumors to throw off the press and has fired employees for leaking even the most quotidian of news items. And extremes occur—that infamous panel of Big Tobacco executives, standing before Congress in 1994 and swearing that nicotine was not addictive despite the damning research piled up in their own labs. It was a breathtaking show of guile, as bald-faced and firm-jawed as lying gets.

Robert Feldman, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts and author of The Liar in Your Life, says that the greater the deception, the more workplace culture is likely a factor. There’s the “bad apple” theory: A few crooks in an organization conduct themselves unethically, but everyone else (especially subordinates) is duped into believing that somehow what they’re seeing is OK. And then, Feldman says, there’s the “bad barrel” theory: the Enron model, in which a poisoned environment, from the top down, sets up the equivalent of social norms in which cheating and lying are an accepted part of daily life. After hearing enough times about officemates expensing meals that aren’t work-related, you might start doing it, too.

Study after study has revealed that distrust begets distrust. One, by the psychologist Jerald Greenberg, author of Insidious Workplace Behavior, notes that employees who feel aggrieved—say, whose salaries have been cut—are significantly more likely to steal from their employers. But plenty of lies have nothing to do with the company: They’re meant to further the liar’s own ambitions. A little inflation on one’s résumé is all but universal. Freakonomics author Steven Levitt says more than half of us do it, most often making little tweaks to finesse the gaps between jobs. Laura Pierce, a nonprofit administrator in New York’s Hudson Valley, used to work for a guy who “lied about everything—even ‘I had turkey for lunch’ when he’d had ham. I think he was so completely in over his head that he used pathological lying as a mechanism to keep everyone as off-kilter as he was.”

Pierce notes that her boss was exceptionally conflict-averse and says that may have fostered his oiliness: “He was so incapable of dealing with any level of disagreement that he’d rather lie in the moment in order to not ruffle feathers.” In that same category are liars who shift blame—“My manager is making me,” “It isn’t my decision”—so as to avoid confrontation.

Though duplicity may offend your personal honor code, there are dangers to calling your coworkers out. Garvin, the personal banker, says her boss never forgave her for turning her in. “Afterward, she was always looking for things to write me up for,” Garvin remembers. In fact, the woman later campaigned, by slowly amassing lists of minor mistakes and flubs, to have Garvin fired, and succeeded—only to be dumped herself a few months later.

Sometimes justice reigns. Pierce’s boss was eventually let go. “He’d bounced around before us,” she says, “and he bounced around after.” Or consider Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair, the reporters who fabricated stories and duped the Washington Post, the New Republic, and the New York Times, respectively. All three were fakers in the name of ambition, and all three were run out of the profession.

Resisting the temptation to fib in the office might be difficult, but it has its rewards. “Our study shows just how honest most people are when they are in their own homes,” says Oxford economist Abeler. “And our theory is that being honest is at the core of how we really want to perceive ourselves.”

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