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Why lying is rife in the workplace and how to stop it

Even experts can fall for a lie. Leslie John is the last person you’d expect to have been duped. The Harvard Business School professor teaches negotiation tactics for dealing with liars, so she was blindsided when she fell for the oldest trick in the book. She found herself in a six-month relationship with a man who, unknown to her, was married. “To be fair, it was a long-distance relationship,” she explains on the phone from Boston.

John had been “catfished” – fallen prey to a person who uses technology to construct a false identity.

Some liars are so convincing that even experts are snowed, despite all their training, their psychological profiling and their lie-detecting technologies. While many people believe they can identify dishonesty through body language, research shows that people’s success rate at picking lies is no better than chance (50 per cent to 60 per cent). Trained police detectives fare no better.

Recalling her “catfishing” experience a couple of years ago, John says awareness of lies doesn’t make you invulnerable to them.

“This is someone who completely duped me. He just flat-out lied,” she says. “When you are motivated to believe someone and see what you want to see in them, it is amazing what you can be blind to.” They were talking every few days on the phone. “It is exhausting holding a lie,” she says. “I don’t know how he functioned.”

When is it ok to lie?

People tell one or two lies every day, on average, and half of all people in negotiations will lie if they have the right opportunity and motive, according to studies. However, some untruths are seen as more forgivable than others, says Mara Olekalns, professor of management (negotiations) at the Melbourne Business School.

“Withholding information is considered reasonably acceptable. Engaging in what would be considered competitive behaviours, such as an exaggerated first offer or misrepresenting what you are willing to accept, is considered reasonably acceptable because it is seen as part of the negotiation game,” she explains.

“And then you move down to things that are a little less acceptable, like faking positive emotions, such as liking the other person, or faking negative emotions like anger to try to influence them.

“Then we move one further step down to deliberately misrepresenting information in order to influence outcomes. That is actually perceived as not very acceptable at all and is possibly illegal.”

Lying in business

The business world is awash with untruths. Around 36 per cent of managers admit to telling lies every day, according to research by the UK’s Chartered Management Institute (Managers and the Moral Maze). Olekalns advises her students to avoid this ethical minefield of game-playing by moving to a problem-solving orientation, which requires them to be more frank and open with their information.

But she warns that first they must test the other party’s willingness to play by those rules, otherwise they leave themselves open to exploitation. “Try to be as honest as you can until you have evidence you are being exploited,” she recommends.

People tell one or two lies every day, on average, and half of all people in negotiations will lie if they have the right opportunity and motive.

Enterprise bargaining is one area of negotiation where distrust of “the other side” is almost a badge of honour and it is a field of engagement Clive Thompson knows well.

Thompson is a director of CoSolve, a consultancy that uses a non-adversarial problem-solving process called “interest-based bargaining”. These union-versus-employer engagements are full of theatre, he explains, with each side performing to their own audience (workers or investors). Old suspicions and hatreds die hard.

“Once or twice I’ve had cases in the union space, mainly on the union side, where a very dyed-in-the-wool, class-analysis person has come along with the attitude that capital/the bosses are the Devil. There is never a moral reserve about lying to the Devil.”

Yet although there may be congenital liars among employers and ideological liars on the union side, both cases are very rare in Thompson’s experience.

What to do if you’ve been lied to

So should you “call out” a lie? Perhaps… but Harvard’s John says it is better to take note of it as a “data point” and use it as a cue to probe further.

Thompson advises going down the denouncement route only if you’re confident the liar will be removed by the other party’s team as a result. If the liar is not removed from the negotiation, it opens up a whole new area of unpleasantness and debate about whether or not actual lies were told. “It is a high-stakes card, only to be played when either you are desperate or there is no other option,” he says.

If you don’t confront the lie, then you have to proceed on the basis that the other party can’t be trusted, fact-check everything that the other party divulges, and keep your own confidential information close to your chest, he says.

Because of the difficulty in identifying lies, a better strategy in a negotiation is to prevent any lies in the first place. Thompson, for example, asks that all announcements be made jointly by the negotiating parties. This stops them from misrepresenting each other’s position when reporting back to stakeholders.

An alternative is that an announcement will not be made until the other party has had it for 24 hours and has the opportunity to comment on it.

“In practice, that sharing of the draft typically does elicit comment. And that comment very regularly does move the first party to alter it,” says Thompson.

One of the occasions when it is often regarded as acceptable to stretch the truth is in a job interview, when people boost their successes (and sometimes appropriate other people’s wins) and exaggerate their current remuneration packages.

This crosses over to fraud when people claim qualifications they haven’t earned and concoct an impressive, but imaginary, work history. About 50 per cent of resumes include false information, according to research by both the Society of Human Resources Management and

Catching a liar

Liars will get caught. The Australian corporate world is, in reality, fairly small. It is more like a village, says Jannine Fraser, managing director of career management company The Career Insight Group.

“If you misrepresent the truth, people will always find out,” Fraser says.

Even gilding the lily on LinkedIn carries huge risks because former colleagues can read it and spread the truth. Fraser says when she hires for her own 200-person company, it is easy to do a police and reference check.

There is no excuse for employers to be caught out by the likes of Andrew Flanagan, who was sacked on his first day as general manager of strategy and business development at Myer in 2014 when it was discovered he had falsified his work history. Flanagan had falsely claimed to have previously held the job as general manager of strategy and business development for Inditex, which owns international fashion brand Zara.

The recruiter, in this case, had contacted two overseas referees supplied by Flanagan. According to one report, an email address for one of them was traced to the IP address at Flanagan’s home.

Flanagan had duped a list of big retailers into hiring him on false pretences (in Australia and overseas) before he was “outed” by Inditex, which had seen the announcement of Flanagan’s Myer appointment.

Fraser is still mystified how this could occur in such a well-networked industry: “In Australia, we use our networks. We don’t just rely on the candidate’s nominated referee. Nobody else does that,” she says.

As for habitual liars, Fraser says it can be a form of mental illness. “I think for some people it becomes a form of power and there is adrenaline attached to it. It becomes a matter of ‘What can I get away with?’.

“People kind of move into the zone of the hustle. We are all vulnerable to getting full of our own story.”

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