How to lie and deceive at work
Don’t lie. Don’t deceive. Be honest.
But if you must lie or deceive, do it the right way, for the right reasons.
Let’s be frank. You cannot occupy a position of any responsibility in a business and be perfectly honest and transparent. Don’t believe me? Here are some examples:
- A client requests that your work with them is confidential. Another client asks if you are working with the first client. What do you say?
- You are a manager. Your boss asks for you help planning for a companywide layoff of 10% of staff. Do you tell your coworkers what you are doing?
- You are interviewing for a position at another company. Your boss asks you if you are looking. What do you say?
If these situations make you uncomfortable, good. If you’re comfortable lying and it comes with ease, I cannot help you (and I don’t want to). If you work for a company where everybody lies all the time, then lord help you (and I can’t).
But if, like most of us, you are one of a bunch of mostly honorable people working for a mostly honorable company, you have a problem. You don’t want to lie or deceive, but you may need to. I’d like to talk about how to do that honorably.
Here’s the principle you want to live by:
Liars concern themselves with how to shore up their lies. Honest people assume that their lies and deception will be revealed, and concern themselves with minimizing the impact.
Someone will reveal your lies or deception, count on it. When they do, the people whom you deceived will feel that their trust is broken. Your job is to repair that trust so you can work together again. (There is no way to predict who will reveal your deception, which is why the last sentence in the pull quote is in passive voice.)
Here are some principles that can help.
Imagine that your mother is watching.
I had a boss once who helped me with ethical issues. When I asked him about a creative, not-quite-kosher way of getting things done, he would say “Imagine that your mother and everybody out there knew what you were doing. Would you still do it?” If the answer is no, then don’t do it. Your behavior will eventually become public. If you’ve behaved honorably, you have far less to worry about.
Lie or deceive for the right reasons.
Here are some decent reasons that may force you to lie to or deceive people, or hide information.
- You signed a contract requiring you to keep something secret.
- The good of the company requires that you keep a secret.
- The good of a group of people (like your department) requires you to keep a secret.
- You need to keep something secret to protect a coworker.
Here are some reasons that are possible, but that you should push back against.
- You made a binding promise to a client. (Try not to get into that situation.)
- You promised a manager. (Ask questions about the details of the secrecy or deception.)
- You don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. (We think white lies are fine. But I believe they can hold people back. “You could probably use some speech training,” “I think this writing is not your best work,” and “I worry that you need might need a stronger deodorant” are all tough messages to give, but could help people if delivered sensitively, in private.)
Here’s the reason that should bother you:
- Lying or keeping something secret will help you. (Whether you’re calling in sick, copying someone else’s work, or pretending that you read the prep material, if you get caught, you’ll get a reputation as a liar. That’s not so good for your future. And your mother would not approve.)
It is better to say nothing than to lie.
People inevitably react worse to a lie (“There will be no layoff.”) than to a failure to disclose something. A person who loses their job will be resentful, but unless they are very naive, will not resent you personally for failing to break a promise to management.
Lies require more lies to prop them up, until eventually you don’t know the truth any more. Deceiving people by omitting information doesn’t require an infrastructure of mendacity.
Don’t lie to customers or investors.
I have dealt with many honest marketing and salespeople. I have also dealt with some liars.
Marketing and sales liars lie for their own benefit. When customers find out, it’s a shitshow. It hurts the salespeople’s and the company’s reputation. Once lost, that is very hard to restore.
If you work for a company that tolerates or encourages lying to customers, quit as soon as you can. Don’t be that guy. Your soul is worth more than your paycheck.
If you buy from a company like this, switch and then write about it on social media. Then we can all get in on the party.
Deception should have an expiration date.
Secrets don’t last forever. You should have an idea when you will reveal how things actually are: when you leave the company, for example, or after the layoff is announced. Deception without an end date means you’re operating under a lie for an indefinite period. If you have a moral compass, that will become taxing. If you get used to it, you’re on the path to hell.
Devise a truth rollout plan.
When will you reveal the truth? Group settings are often best, since you don’t have to worry so much about rumors spreading. Who will write the email, or the speech? Will you deputize some managers ahead of time to help with questions? You need a plan that contemplates what happens after you sell the division, downsize the department, switch from Oracle to Salesforce, or fire the CIO — whatever it is you’ve been trying to hide.
Once you roll out the truth, you need to deal with two issues. First, why did you make the change? And second, why did you need to lie or keep things secret? Apologize sincerely for lying or being deceptive. People will be resentful; you’ll need a plan to deal with that disruption as well. If you think someone will be a particular problem, tell them the day before and bring them under the umbrella.
Devise a plan to deal with leaks.
Your rollout plan may never see the light of day. Especially if somebody spills the beans. You might decide to deny and stonewall — then you’ll have the complex task of explaining later why you denied the truth. Or you might decide to admit things and accelerate admitting what people have figured out. As soon as you decide to deceive, you need a plan for this.
After a big deception, trust is at its nadir. People will leave. People will say nasty things. New rumors will spread. It will be awful.
If you acknowledge the problem, you can work towards healing the trust and restoring the company to a healthy set of attitudes. That’s a lot of work, but unless you like working in a nest of vipers, it’s work you need to do.
If this post scares you, I’ve accomplished my goal. Please don’t get good at lying. But don’t be bad at it, either. Try not to lie, and try not to deceive. But when you do, try to do it for the right reasons, and with a plan to repair things afterward.
Disclaimer: Follow this advice at your own risk. I take no legal responsibility for the consequences of your lying and deception. In the end, you’re on your own.
Positions of responsibility require taking responsibility.
Intentional omission and prevarication are just as dishonest as a straight up lie.
I understand the focus on self-preservation. Instead calculate one’s approach to not hurt others.
Comments like the following leave you open to being pressed for more information (which is why people avoid them), but they are honest.
I can’t comment on that.
I would rather not discuss that right now.
I am not at liberty to say.
I made a previous commitment.
There are certainly times when being 100% transparent is not in the best interests of anyone. But, does that leave no choice other than lying? I don’t think so. I think we can set the bar higher.
Hey Josh, just wanted to say that I appreciate your excellent writing. Keep it up!
If there’s so much risk involved and so many factors to take serious in not telling the truth you better stick with the truth… But maybe that’s Utopia…
Just a small edit:
Liars concern/s/ themselves with how to shore up their lies. Honest people assume/s/ that their lies and deception will be revealed, and concern themselves with minimizing the impact.
Remove the ‘s’ at the end of “concern” and “assume”.