Lying in the Workplace (and Why It Happens)

What do you do if you suspect employees are telling “little white lies” (or even bigger lies) at work? Lying in the workplace falls under the category of employee conflict management. Before deciding a course of action, you must first examine why people lie and how prepared you are to handle it.

Let’s start by establishing that people are intrinsically good and generally want positive things in their work/life.  They want to build relationships, garner admiration and achieve success. Working on this assumption, one wonders ― why would they lie?

Generally, there are two reasons that people lie at work: fear or temptation.

In the workplace, fear often stems from:

  • fear of losing one’s job
  • fear of not belonging, feeling part of the group, or being excluded
  • fear of not being in the know
  • fear of losing the respect of others
  • fear of not being respected at all
  • fear of not knowing how to handle conflict

When it comes to temptation, common factors are:

  • temptation of status, driven by ego
  • temptation of money, title or prestige
  • temptation of power or control

Basic needs and wants outside of the workplace come into play here as well. One works to support a lifestyle and pressures outside of work may tempt one to do things they wouldn’t normally do.

Armed with the knowledge that lies typically stem from either fear or temptation – what can you do to curb lying in the workplace?

Be Prepared
It’s important to establish clear standards of conduct. Put a defined processes in place so that when it does happen you’re handling the situation properly and consistently. Consider the following when defining your process:

  • What are your business ethics expectations? How will you communicate these to employees? Are these expectations part of the onboarding and ongoing business processes and procedures?
  • What type of employee relations approach do you have? If there is a suspected issue, do employees know to whom to turn? A peer? A supervisor? HR?

Remember – having resources in place is only half the battle. Be sure your expectations, processes and potential consequences are clearly communicated.

Reduce the Opportunity for Temptation

If employees deal with cash or commodities, what practices do you have in place to deter theft? Think about incorporating sign offs or having multiple people in place that have touchpoints to those things on a daily basis.

A common temptation is taking liberties with how expenses are filed. To safeguard this, clearly communicate how the process works, and who will be reviewing it. Consider having more than one reviewer. Be very specific about what is included. Don’t have a “we will reimburse any business expense policy” – there’s simply too much gray area. Consider creating a process which includes receipts and supervisor sign off.  It can be very simple or as involved as you need as long as it is communicated clearly.

So what do you do when you catch an employee in a lie?

Turn to your established business ethics guidelines to determine the severity and impact of the lie. Does the lie violate company guidelines or the law? What was the motivation for the lie? Do they lie out of habit? Were they lying to keep themselves out of trouble? Was there a malicious intent? Depending upon the severity, it can turn into a risk vs. reward scenario. Are future similar lies too great a risk to the company? The organization must determine when those lies may have an adverse effect on the organization and the people that work there.

There is no one size fits all approach to sensitive employee conflict management scenarios. But take heart – you can discourage lying by building a culture of empowerment. And we’re talking about more than lip service here; management buy-in is required to empower your teams. When people have a shared goal or vision– something they can work toward together – the team itself tends to lift the whole organization up. A strong culture breeds positivity and reduces fear. When people feel they are a valued part of something, they feel less fearful, more secure and are less likely to lie.

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