At the “pitch day” event held by a local start-up accelerator, I ran into someone I used to work with. We were never friends, but I held no grudge towards her.
During her pitch, she made several statements that I knew were (at best) exaggerations and (at worst) outright lies. For instance, she casually threw in a line that strongly implied that she’d been one of the founders of the company where we both worked. She wasn’t – the company was several years old before she was hired. There were other points in her pitch that I knew or thought to be untrue, but I figured I might have misunderstood or that she had made some honest mistakes while trying to fit everything into the 3-minute time slot.
The idea that it was a mistake went down the drain quickly, however. During the after-pitch networking event, she saw me talking to someone she was hoping to get as an investor. As soon as he walked away, she approached me belligerently and said, “If you cost me an investor, my lawyers will be all over you in a heartbeat.”
Her attitude told me three things. First, she wasn’t exaggerating in her pitch. She was lying intentionally, and she knew it. Second, she was invested in her lies, and understood that if her lies were discovered, the results could be catastrophic. Third, she somehow thought she could insulate herself from the truth, as if threatening one of several hundred former co-workers could stop the truth from coming out.
When I told this story to a friend, he laughed. “That’s just crazy. No sane person would act that way.” Maybe not, but people tell lies all the time. A 2002 University of Massachusetts study showed that during a 10 minute conversation 60% of adults will lie at least once. Most of them are “social lies” – the little white lies that we all tell.
Dr. Kurt Helm, founder of the honesty and skills testing company that carries his name, has been studying human behavior for decades. And Dr. Helm says anyone will lie if they fear the consequences, just as there are circumstances under which nearly everyone will steal.
He tells the story of a former client who used one of the Rely work-attitude tests, and then caught a long-time employee stealing small amounts of cash after years of being an honest worker and getting a great score on the test that (in part) measures an employee’s likelihood for workplace theft. “Why didn’t you spot this?” the client demanded.
Dr. Helm took a closer look at the employee’s situation and asked questions about recent changes in the person’s life. It turned out that the employee’s husband had been injured on the job, so the family’s primary source of income was gone. High medical bills, a drastic reduction in income, and serious financial stress made her a poor choice for a part-time job handling large sums of cash – but no one had picked up on her changed circumstances until she fell into temptation because of her desperate circumstances.
“If the kids are hungry, anyone will steal to feed them,” he noted. Dr. Helm says that understanding why people lie can be a big help in knowing what to do about the lie.
So when I was thinking about my former co-worker and her lies during that business pitch, I wondered what had changed in her circumstances that made her willing to stand up in a room full of potential investors and weave a story filled with holes and falsehoods. Just how desperate was she?
More importantly to my thinking as she turned away after delivering her little threat, what was the right thing for me to do about her lies? I wasn’t directly affected by what she said about her involvement with our former company – but as a volunteer and occasional mentor to the start-ups in the business accelerator, did I have a responsibility to the investors at “our” pitch day to let them know that there was a problem with her presentation?
When Little White Lies Aren’t
The truth is that most people lie to avoid unpleasant consequences. The most common lie people tell to avoid unpleasant consequences is saying, “I’m fine” when asked “How are you?” The consequence they want to avoid is an unpleasant or too-personal conversation. And most of us are ok with that kind of lie.
But there are other common workplace lies that aren’t little, and they aren’t white. The second most common workplace lie seems to be when a supervisor or boss asks how a project is going and the employee replies that “everything is on schedule” out of fear.
Years ago, I worked with a tech company that was planning to launch a new game in time for the big holiday selling season. One of the production employees, already on probation for some issues at work, was asked if a shipment from China was on schedule. He said it was, so the sales manager processed an order from the company’s biggest retail client, and marketing planned a huge holiday promotion to drive traffic to the retailer around a specific date.
You can guess what happened. The shipment left port a full week later than scheduled, and the cargo ship carrying the games ran into bad weather – and nobody notified the customer or the marketing department. It was a costly disaster that happened because a low-level employee who was worried about a third negative review from his supervisor said, “It’s all fine” instead of telling the truth.
How to Spot a Workplace Liar
Even though most people lie a lot, they don’t get caught nearly as often as you might think. A study at the University of California analyzed the results of 253 studies and found that people only spot about half the lies they’re told (53% to be exact).
It didn’t surprise me when I read that the average person is as likely to spot a lie as they are to win a coin toss, but it did surprise me when I read that people who are trained in detecting deception – judges, customs agents, law enforcement officers, and even CIA agents – only spot a lie about 60% of the time.
So how do you spot a liar in the workplace? It’s a common belief that liars avoid eye contact or switch their gaze rapidly left and right when they’re being untruthful. Leanne ten Brinke, a psychology at UC Berkeley says there’s no evidence that is the case. Professor ten Brinke says liars often have no trouble looking people in the eye, because they know that if they looked elsewhere, people would be less likely to believe them.
Former CIA officers Philip Houston, Michael Floyd, and Susan Carnicero distilled their professional deception-detecting skills into a fascinating book, Spy the Lie. While promoting the book, Michael Floyd prepared this checklist of six cues that can help you spot a liar.
- Behavioral pause or delay. You ask a person a question and there is dead silence for awhile before the answer begins. How long does a delay have to be before it’s meaningful, before you would consider it a deceptive indicator? It depends. Try this exercise on a friend: Ask her the question, “On this date seven years ago, what were you doing?” Anyone will pause before answering. We all have to think about it, and probably still won’t be able to give a meaningful answer. Now ask, “On this date seven years ago, did you rob a gas station?” If you get silence this time, you may need to choose your friends more carefully. Much more likely there will be an immediate and indignant response of “No!” or “Of course not!” It’s a simple exercise, but it drives home the point that the delay needs to be considered in the context of whether it’s appropriate for the question.
- Verbal/non-verbal disconnect. Our brains are wired in a way that causes our verbal and nonverbal behaviors to match up. If they don’t, there may be deception. A common verbal/nonverbal disconnect to watch out for occurs when a person nods affirmatively while saying, “No,” or turns his head from side to side while saying, “Yes.” As an exercise, if you were to perform that mismatch in response to a question, you’d find that you really have to force yourself through the motion. Yet a deceptive person will potentially do it without even thinking about it.
- Hiding the mouth or eyes. A deceptive person will often hide her mouth or eyes when being untruthful. There is a natural tendency to want to cover over a lie, so if a person’s hand goes in front of her mouth while she’s responding to a question, that’s significant. Similarly, there’s a natural inclination to shield oneself from the reaction of those who are being lied to. If a person shields her eyes while she’s responding to a question, what she might well be indicating, on a subconscious level, is that she can’t bear to see the reaction to the whopper she’s telling. This shielding may be accomplished with a hand, or the person might even close her eyes. We’re not referring to blinking here, but if a person closes her eyes while responding to a question that does not require reflection to answer, it’s likely an indicator of deception.
- Throat-clearing or swallowing. If a person clears his throat or performs a significant swallow prior to answering the question, that’s a potential problem. If he does it after he answers, that doesn’t bother us. Physiologically, the question might have created a spike in anxiety, which can cause discomfort or dryness in the mouth and throat.
- Hand-to-face activity. Be on the lookout for someone who constantly touches their head or face when answering questions. It might take the form of biting or licking the lips, or pulling on the lips or ears. The reason goes back to simple high school science. You’ve asked a question, and the question creates a spike in anxiety because a truthful response would be incriminating. That, in turn, triggers the autonomic nervous system to go to work to dissipate the anxiety, draining blood from the surfaces of the face, the ears, and the extremities—which can create a sensation of cold or itchiness. Without the person even realizing it, his hands are drawn to those areas, or there’s a wringing or rubbing of the hands. Boom!—you’ve spotted a deceptive indicator.
- Grooming gestures. Another way that some people may dissipate anxiety is through physical activity in the form of grooming oneself or the immediate surroundings. When responding to a question, a deceptive man might adjust his tie or shirt cuffs, or maybe his glasses. An untruthful woman might move a few strands of hair behind her ear, or straighten her skirt. Tidying up the surroundings is another form of grooming gesture. You ask a question, and suddenly the phone isn’t turned the right way, the glass of water is too close, or the pencil isn’t in the right place.
Floyd says that he’d need to see at least two of the six behaviors before he can say someone is being deceptive. Spot three or more, and you should verify the information elsewhere before accepting it, he adds.
The reaction my former co-worker exhibited at the pitch day event is an even more worrisome behavior, according to the Spy the Lie book. Being aggressive or attacking someone is an indication of lying, too. Then there’s manipulation, where people try and control the situation by repeating questions or by giving non-answer statements, such as “that’s a good question”.
Personally, I get really suspicious when someone not only tries to avoid a question, but immediately starts being persuasive. It raises a red flag for me when I ask a simple question that could be answered with yes or no, and instead of answering directly, they start giving me a sales pitch on their team’s track record, or the company’s last quarter sales.
What to do When You Catch a Liar
Sometimes, it’s important to take action as soon as you catch someone telling a workplace lie. More often, there is time to stop and think about how you should react. I don’t know about others, but when I catch someone lying to me, it’s usually the kind of lie that makes me so mad that it’s hard to think straight. After all, it’s the whoppers that are so ridiculous they’re just insulting that are the easiest to spot.
Like the time my teenage sons were given permission to go to a free Van Halen concert in downtown Dallas – AFTER school. But they skipped school and headed downtown with their buddies before noon. The next morning, I asked my youngest about the show, and whether traffic was bad when he headed downtown after school. He told me all about their parking problems, and assured me they’d left after school.
Then I unfolded the newspaper I had read before he got up. And there he was, on the front page, perched on a lamp post at 2 p.m. in the afternoon, listening to the pre-show music and watching the stage hands set up. It was hard not to laugh at the stunned look on his face.
At work, laughter is usually the last thing on my mind when I catch someone in a lie. When I’ve caught co-workers lying to me, whether they were superiors or subordinates, the goal is to keep the conversation constructive, without letting the liar off the hook. That isn’t always easy, but it can be done.
More often, I don’t spot the lies outright. I just have that nagging sense that I’m being lied to. I’m always hesitant to accuse someone without proof, but I’m old enough that I’ve learned that a healthy dose of skepticism is a good thing.
I’ve never been the go along to get along type. When I call someone on a lie depends on the situation. Sometimes, it’s safer and more appropriate to report the lie to someone else rather than confronting the liar yourself. This is especially true now that I am semi-retired, and no longer take an active part in day-to-day management.
As a consultant, board member, or investor in a company, it’s important that I understand the company culture and the “rules” (or expectations) about how things are handled. This would be true if you work as an employee at a company you don’t own as well. Before you decide what course of action to take, check the employee handbook and consider the recent history of similar situations. What are the consequences for the liar? What are the proper procedures for addressing it? How have similar situations been handled in the past? It could backfire on you if you don’t follow the rules.
There are always at least four options when you spot a workplace liar. They include:
- Do nothing. We all hate being lied to, but ask yourself what’s at stake (besides your anger or ego) before you do anything. Weigh the pros and cons before taking action. Ask yourself who needs to know about the lie, and what effect the lie will have on the company. Sometimes the lie is serious, and management has to know – but sometimes the trouble you avoid by being silent may be worth the frustration of not speaking out.
- Laugh it off. Sometimes, the right action is to make a joke out of a lie that’s too big to ignore, but not big enough to get someone fired. A playful comment that lets the liar know you’ve caught them, but aren’t going to lash out at them, may be the best action. I once heard a salesman claim that he lost a big account because he beat the client at golf too often. (He’d lost the account because he made promises he knew we couldn’t keep.) A co-worker, who had heard the same story laughed and lightly punched the guy in the arm. He said, “Oh, yeah? I must need new glasses because when I looked at the scores, it said you shot 12 over par.” That let the liar come clean by pretending he was just kidding around and never expected to be believed.
- Play dumb. In a group setting, playing dumb may be a way to let someone save face. Just pretend you’re confused about the facts, by asking a lot of follow-up questions. Asking for a lot of details allows the liar to admit that they “misspoke” and correct themselves without being publicly shamed.
- Call them on the lie. There are many situations where doing nothing isn’t a good option, and you must call the liar out. Think carefully about the best way to do this. Make sure you have evidence that backs up your claim, or you may be branded a liar yourself. Some experts suggest having a conversation with the liar in private, but I don’t think that’s a good idea unless you are the CEO and the liar is one of your direct reports. Liars, after all, lie. So having a witness when you confront them – someone from human resources or legal in a large company, or a neutral manager in a smaller company – can be important.
One thing you should avoid at all costs is gossiping about a workplace lie or the liar who told it. Don’t tell your buddies at work that so-and-so is a liar – especially if you haven’t reported the lie to management. That could cost you your job, or result in a defamation suit.
Of course, there are times when not reporting a lie could cost you your job, too. These situations include any time someone’s lie violates a regulation or the law, or when the health and safety of company employers or the public might be jeopardized by the lie.
If you do decide to report the lie to management, stick to the facts and come prepared with evidence. Don’t offer any ideas about why the lie was told. Stick to what was said, what the truth is, and the proof you have collected.
Make no mistake. Some liars are willing to go to great lengths to protect themselves and their lies. So once you know that you are dealing with a liar, it’s absolutely essential to take steps to protect yourself. Even if you decide to let the lie go, immediately document the circumstances. Make lists of those who witnessed the lie and can back you up on the facts.
Try to interact with the liar via email or text, which create a written record. (A really experienced or smart liar probably won’t put things in writing, though.) You can always document the conversation yourself, including who, what, when, where, and the correct facts, then sent your lying colleague an email summarizing the conversation. That gives your colleague the opportunity to respond safely.
If you find yourself having a private (one to one) conversation with the liar, consider recording the conversation. Before you do, make sure you know and understand your state’s wiretap laws. (The same laws usually apply if you record a face-to-face conversation.)
I live in what’s called a “one party consent state”. That means that so long as one person in the conversation (me) knows it’s being recorded, it can be recorded. So if I were going to confront a liar in private, or if I began to realize that someone was lying to me in the middle of a private meeting, I would use the recording function on my cell phone in order to protect myself from later reprisals.
It is absolutely essential to know whether or not you can legally record such conversations BEFORE the recording is made. Twelve states are so-called “two-party consent” states – but no matter how many people are present, everyone in the conversation has to consent to the recording before taping begins. Those jurisdictions are California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Making a secret recording in those states may be a crime, and it almost certainly leaves you open to a lawsuit. (Remember that the only person who faced serious career consequences in the Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton scandal was Linda Tripp – the government employee who illegally recorded Ms. Lewinsky’s conversations about her affair with the President. Her recordings were made in Maryland — but the outcome would have been quite different for her if she’d made them in Virginia or the District of Columbia, which did not have two-party consent laws at the time.)
Last, but hardly least, try to remove the liar from the workplace as quickly as possible after they are confronted about their lies. Pathological liars will stir up an amazing amount of confusion, unhappiness, and hurt feelings to try to muddy the waters.
I’ve seen instances where a liar confronted privately will tearfully tell everyone they can how unfairly they’ve been treated, how their words were twisted and used against them, all the while warning others to take steps to protect themselves from “the vindictive person” who confronted them “unfairly”. These liars can be very convincing, so beware!