So, What Will YOU Do When Your Employee Lies to You?

Lying is one of those odd things in life — everyone lies to everyone, but no one likes to be lied to.

This gets even weirder in the workplace, because it’s bad form to call someone out as a liar, even when everyone knows damn well he or she is.

I once had a senior executive counsel me that I should never trust such-and-such (another senior executive), because everyone — including her boss — knew she lied.

I  stared at him, aghast. He probably thought I was shocked to learn the truth about this woman, but hell no. She practically oozed insincerity, and I’d never trusted her.

However, I was horrified to learn how widespread the open secret was.

Do you confront a liar at work?

But that’s just it. No one had ever confronted this women (even her boss, apparently) because you don’t do that at work.

So, if it’s impolite to confront a liar (and see, I bet some of you are cringing right now saying to yourselves “She didn’t have to go there. Just because someone tells a lie doesn’t make him a liar …”) what are you supposed to do when your employee lies to you?

Here are some options you may want to consider:

1. Ignore it

Look, I didn’t say these would be great options, but they’re options. Depending on the specifics of the lie and the impact it has on business and your relationship with this employee, you might just ignore it.

Your employee calls in sick, and you’re pretty sure they’re hunting for a new job? Maybe you should just let that be.

2. Pretend they didn’t mean to lie

I once had an employee tell me he’d finished labeling some folders when he hadn’t. In fact, he’d gotten about halfway through and just stopped.

When I went to retrieve the folders I discovered the truth. I was especially perplexed because he’d volunteered his status. I hadn’t even asked.

Later that afternoon, I approached the employee about the unfinished work.

Me: So [employee name], earlier today when I went to get the folder for ABC, it wasn’t there. I thought I heard you say you’d finished labeling all the folders?

Awkward silence.

Me: So, what happened?

Employee: I’m not sure, Crystal. I think I meant to finish them, and that’s why I told you I did.

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Repeat of awkward silence.

Me: OK, well listen — my definition of “finished” is “completely done.” Please remember that in the future, OK? Thanks.

Oy vey. I probably should have just ignored it, right?

3. Gently confront the fabricator

Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet.

Back in the day, I used to administer a pre-employment test for things like assertiveness, honesty, stress management, flexibility, etc. The test had a “candidness score,” which I thought was just as interesting (if not more so) than everything else.

The top applicant for the job rated slightly lower on the candidness score than I would have liked, and according to the test makers, that meant the candidate was likely engaging in a bit of impression management. (By the way, a 2006 study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology stated that 81 percent of people lie during interviews to make themselves “look good,” because they believe interviewers can’t take the truth.)

Anyway, I really liked this candidate, and she’d scored very well in all the technical areas, so I told her, “According to the test scores, you weren’t exactly candid about some things.” And then I told her how much I really value honesty and that as her boss I would make it as easy as possible for her to tell me the truth.

She turned out to be a great employee (if a little sneaky at times), and I was glad I’d hired her and that I’d laid out my expectations from the beginning. I believe it helped us work better together.

“As common as scratching itches”

Bottom line is, people lie. A lot. In The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life, author Ralph Keyes argues that “lying has [now] become as common as scratching itches.”

And Statistics Brain, compiling data from Accu-Screen, Inc., ADP, and SHRM, reported in 2012 that 53 percent of resumes contain untruths and that 70 percent of college students say they’d lie to get a job.

So, what will you do when your employee lies to you?

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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7 Comments on “So, What Will YOU Do When Your Employee Lies to You?

  1. Very interesting article… but, something I’m seeing more and more of with the upcoming generation is that they’re not afraid of the friction that comes from calling someone out on a lie. Like the generations before them in other areas, might this possibly be something that will be confronted when the culture shifts as these younger people enter the workforce? Just a thought of mine…

  2. Great article…but what should we do in this example…your employee called in sick due to back injury, you know it is a lie straight away, next day you simply going out and you see that “sick/ill” person in the night club having fun with his/her mates…would you mentioned that on the return day ?

    1. Nope–would have mentioned it that same night. I’m a big fan of, “Hey!! How ya doin’? And how’s that back of yours?”
      Let THEM be the ones to feel uncomfortable when they return.

  3. We have an employee who lies so much everyone has simply taken to ignoring her. In 8 months of employment she has showed up on time less than a dozen times. Every time she comes in late the excuse is heavy traffic. All employees have told her to leave her home earlier but that doesn’t seem to be the correct solution according to her. When she makes a mistake (which everyone does now and again), she involves someone else in the screw up so as to deflect blame away from herself.
    The only reason she was hired is because she scored high on a sales test that the company gives to each applicant. Well her sales are terrible and we have had to refund thousands of dollars back to customers because of her mistakes. Finally it looks like the boss is addressing this issue with her.

  4. Good blog. I try to go with “Ignore it” and just be aware of what the individual is capable of. An employee has lied to me twice this week and it is extremely aggravating. Once about missing paper work that she plainly over looked yet fabricated a story that it was he co workers fault and now she is lying about needing to take off for a funeral tomorrow for a close friend. The Philly area just got bombarded with a snow and ice storm and I looked in obituaries from all over and any funeral for tomorrow has been rescheduled because of the weather. It’s not that they lie, it’s that they are not any good at it and it insults me to think they think I’ll buy it..
    ..

  5. I think you’re missing the choice, “Call them out on the lie.” As a start-up manager, my company honestly can’t have employees that lie in ways that are harmful to the company (e.g. timesheet, work completed). Yes, you should always “gently confront them” at first, but what about when it keeps happening? I am not afraid to let an employee know that something is not okay when they are harming the company. It’s not okay to lie, but it’s also not okay to let others lie.

  6. If your goal is to create a culture that encourages lying, mocks integrity as old fashioned, and ensures everyone only looks out for number one, these are great choices. Change your company name to CYA.
    This is a top down behaviour. If those are viable options for your company, you are in trouble. No one trusts a liar. No one respects a manager who condones lying by action or inaction.
    Everyone lies, so why fight it? Because it’s a cancer.

    4. Have hard evidence and present it to the employee. Honest people who made an error in judgement will take ownership of their mistake and apologize. Give them a second chance. Chronic liars will get angry and defensive. Fire them, no matter how valuable you thought they were. Your company’s life just might depend on it.

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