Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sometimes, it's OK to lie at work

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When you think about it honestly, most of us have lied at work to get what we want.

How often have you said, "I only need a minute of your time" knowing full well that interruptions rarely last only 60 seconds?

How often have you heard, "Drop everything and get on this ASAP" from someone expressing urgency to get their project moved to the top of the priority pile?

Whether it is to avoid socially awkward moments, side-step punishment, maintain important relationships or to please others, we often bend the truth to suit our needs.

Lying has become a way of life in today's corporate culture and experts have said that we tell lies more easily and naturally in the workplace than we do at home because the work environment is a more impersonal place. At work, performance means everything and we learn early in our careers that it's OK to spin results, justify an action or tell a little white lie to make ourselves or others look better as a means of self-preservation.

In fact, we rarely call it lying. We prefer to think of it as being tactful or diplomatic.

The workplace both reviles and rewards dishonesty. It's become acceptable for people to either embellish the truth or lie by omission -- remaining silent or withholding vital information -- to get ahead.

After all, we believe that if the lie isn't hurting anyone or is being used to reasonably explain walking in late for work, to reassure that a project is progressing on time or to help build confidence in a poorly-motivated colleague, it can't be all that bad, can it?

The truth is, there actually are some benefits to lying in the workplace:

Building relationships -- When trying to win over people, sometimes it is better to swallow your pride and agree with them on matters of opinion to build camaraderie. Being agreeable instead of confrontational or contrary makes you instantly more likable.

Getting along with co-workers -- Taking part in a water-cooler discussion about the playoff series or trying to jump into a lunchtime conversation about the latest castoff on a reality TV show might mean fudging the truth about your interest. A lot of bonding is done on coffee break, so you may need to pull out a lie to connect with your office peers.

Keeping a balance between work and private lives -- Co-workers may casually toss out details about their personal lives and expect you to do the same. It may be none of their business, but if you don't want to appear aloof by refusing to share, consider making something up or just glossing over the details to keep your life private life private.

While lies can offer short-term benefits like putting us in a better light or sparing hurt feelings, deception takes a lot of work. Not only does making up a believable story create anxiety, keeping the story straight can cause sweaty-palmed distress if the liar gets tangled in the web they've weaved.

There is also a fine line between fibbing to fit in and lying to cover up something illegal or immoral, or to intentionally deceive someone to gain leverage. Big or small, lies often come with consequences such as creating an environment of distrust, hindering relationships and puncturing morale. Getting caught in a serious lie can result in personal repercussions from a damaged reputation to losing fairly-earned promotions and praise.

While lying does exist in the workplace and can obviously be used to gain an advantage, honesty has always been and still remains the best policy to gain and keep the trust of the people you work with.

-- With reporting by Barbara Chabai

John McFerran, PhD, CMC, F. CHRP, is founder and president of People First HR Services Ltd. For more information, visit


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 7, 2009 I2

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