Amy Joyce
Life at Work

The Fine Line of Lying

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By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 26, 2006

Nancy Palazza had a very unpleasant task awaiting her this past Wednesday. Palazza, the owner of a firm that places workers in jobs throughout the region, received a call from a client saying one of the workers had lied on a time sheet. The person put in for 10 extra hours of overtime that Palazza's client said never happened.

"Now we have to have a conversation with this person," Palazza sighed.

She will let the worker explain his actions and will try to give him the benefit of the doubt. But if it's clear he lied, Palazza will simply say, "We can't work with you anymore."

When Palazza finds an employee has lied, she knows she shouldn't personalize it, and must treat the situation in a very "businesslike way." That usually means she will fire the liar.

Lying in the workplace is something that happens every day. Little lies, big lies, white lies, résumé lies. How a person handles a lie depends on the type of lie and usually the relationship between the liar and lie-ee(!). Sometimes, as in the case of Palazza's temporary worker, a lie is clearly wrong. Her company puts people in jobs. If an employee messes up, Palazza's relationship with a client could be ruined. Not good for business.

But in other cases, a lie might be a stretching of the truth or even simply not telling the whole story. And in the workplace that happens quite frequently. At what point do people think they should forgive and move on?

According to a survey released last month by CareerBuilder.com, 19 percent of workers admit they tell lies at the office at least once a week. The reasons: to appease a customer (26 percent); to cover up a failed project, mistake or missed deadline (13 percent); to explain an unexcused absence or late arrival (8 percent); to protect another employee (8 percent); to get another employee in trouble (5 percent).

Meanwhile, nearly 24 percent of managers say they have fired an employee for being dishonest.

Many lies stem from fudging a résumé fact. Or two. Last month, the chief executive of Radio Shack Corp. resigned after the Fort Worth Star-Telegram found false information on his résumé. David Edmondson claimed he had degrees in theology and psychology from Pacific Coast Baptist College in California. The school had no record of the degrees, and Edmondson admitted the information was "incorrect."

A study by ResumeDoctor.com last month found that 42.7 percent of résumés contain one or more major inaccuracies. The company took more than 1,000 résumés, and research staff tried to verify dates of employment, job titles and education. "What's a little ironic, nowadays companies won't give character references. . . . They will confirm and deny dates, job titles and overall duties," said Michael Worthington, co-founder of ResumeDoctor.com. "The things candidates are lying most about are the things you can easily check up on."

Worthington himself has a close friend who got a job in his early twenties about 15 years ago. The job description said a degree was required, but Worthington's friend hadn't finished college. Being young and naive (is that really an excuse?), this person put on his résumé that he had received a degree. Now this friend is up for a huge promotion after years of rising in the ranks. To get the new job, he has to present his résumé to the board. Talk about Pandora's box. (Worthington's best advice to him: Just leave the education off the résumé.)

Worthington himself has a bit of a soft take on résumé lies:

"For me, if I had an employee mislead me on a résumé and a year or two later found out something wasn't right, and if they were . . . doing a great job, I'm probably going to let it pass," he said.

Others, however, feel personally stung when a co-worker or employee is found to have lied. But then they sometimes learn they have to let it slide a bit. (Tell me you never lied or bent the truth a bit!)

Several years ago, Bill Perry worked for a dot-com start-up as the director of public relations. He worked side by side with his employee, a young woman he coached from her first day at the company. The firm was a "pressure cooker," he admits, looking back. But he felt that if this other worker had any problems, she would be comfortable enough to tell him.

One day, Perry's employee called in sick. When he called her to ask a question, he realized there was very little chance she was truly out sick. "You get that sixth sense that someone's just not coming clean," he said. So he asked her about it and she became defensive. "I felt like I was having a conversation with my sister. It turned into a confrontation much more quickly than it should have," he said.

The next day, Perry pulled her into a conference room and confronted her again, realizing she was probably interviewing somewhere else. She opened up and told him the pace was too frenetic and she just couldn't take it.

"Through it all, I just thought it would have been so much better at the outset if she said frankly . . . 'I just wonder whether I can keep going,' " he said. "I thought the level of camaraderie was deeper than it was."

So not only did Perry feel stung by this person, but he was also upset that she didn't open up from the beginning. Even if she had continued to work there, he might have lost trust in her. "The lying thing, to me, just kind of doubly hurt. I thought we had the camaraderie. Second, I was just, kind of, if we didn't have that, why didn't she just tell me it wasn't working?"

He felt hurt and betrayed and said it was almost as if he went through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

But Perry wasn't hurt enough to send her out the door immediately. He knew why she had to go, and he helped her find a new job. Why? Because even though she lied, he respected her work. And he also acknowledged that he, just that week, had lied to a family member so he could get out of planning a party. After all this, Perry's guilt got to him, he called the family member, fessed up and helped plan the party.

"We all do this at one time or another."

Join Amy Tuesday to discuss your life at work at washingtonpost.com from 11 to noon. You can e-mail her with your column ideas at lifeatwork@washpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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