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The question is; should you lie at work? -- SHANKAR R. SANTHIRAM
The question is; should you lie at work? -- SHANKAR R. SANTHIRAM

Recently, our new finance minister came under some scrutiny for opening up the nation’s books. Notwithstanding the technicalities of accounting procedures and the actual veracity of numbers, most common folk were rather alarmed with the situation.

Some argued that while this move was understandable, it was unnecessarily risky for investor sentiment.

This column is not in the business of analysing the financial permutations of Malaysia, or the political underpinnings of any announcement made by the government of the day. The story caught my attention because, at core, it is about telling the truth at your workplace.

Some people, especially if they have a creative streak in them, are very apt at lying.

The question is; should you lie at work?

All proponents of ethical behaviour will argue that you should never lie. But here’s the thing. A 2002 study that was conducted by the University of Massachusetts in the United States showed that the average person can’t have a conversation without lying, at least once.

Let me share with you the types of lies you will encounter at the workplace.

Carol Kinsey Goman, a leadership coach to some of the best companies in the world, wrote a book called ‘The Truth about Lies in the Workplace’. Here, she argues that everyone tells little “white lies” now and then, but real deception in the workplace is a poison, that can destroy relationships, careers, and companies.

In the book she examines the role you play in supporting lies; how your own vanities, desires, self-deceptions, and rationalizations allow you to be duped.

In my experience of being a management consultant, and also as a business owner, I have encountered many people at work who take liberties with, or stretch the truth. People fib, sweet-talk, or embellish the reality. And, then there are those who spread malicious gossip, or cover-up embarrassing and sometimes unethical acts.

I am also sure that you have encountered situations where your colleagues tell lies to get out of unwanted work, or to get on the good side of your boss.

Of late, we hear various stories of civil servants, business owners, and even airline bosses who get caught in embarrassing situations. They then defend their actions by claiming that they were under tremendous pressure. Perhaps, it was simply that they lacked the guts to tell their “bosses” that what was being asked of them is just not doable.

Workplace lies, range from the everyday harmless ones to major deceits.

The “white-lies” or what experts call social lies are most common. They happen in your daily work interactions. For instance, when a colleague asks you how you are; you tend to respond mechanically by saying you’re good or fine. The reality is that they probably don’t really want to hear what you are actually going through. And, you probably don’t fancy saying anything more than that.

Then there are exaggerations. This is when people embellish to appear more capable than they actually are. You might have a colleague say to you, “…no worries, I know that problematic client really well. I will speak to him, and sort it out for you”. But then, they don’t end up helping you, having made that grand declaration to the whole office.

On a regular basis, you will also have to deal with protective lies. These are lies that are spewed as a humane alternative to hurting someone’s feelings. Like when your colleague prepared presentation slides for a management meeting, and it looks like it was made by a 10-year old who just discovered PowerPoint. But you compliment them anyway, because you want to be encouraging.

The bigger lies are less innocuous.

I once had a candidate who was very impressive at the interview stage. He claimed he had completed a degree in psychology, but hadn’t graduated yet. I took his explanation in good faith, and hired him. It was only months later, when I insisted on sighting his certificate that he had to come clean, and disclose that he had not actually completed his degree. This is a lie of omission. Your integrity comes in question if you do this.

You would have definitely encountered the defensive lie. This is when people “tai-chi” responsibility to someone else. “It was not made clear that I was responsible for this.” When they need to protect themselves, or avoid being punished, people speak these lies. This type of lie causes trouble in the smooth running of a business, because things simply don’t get done.

Destructive lies are arguably the worst sort. For example if you are told that there are no salary increments this year because of the prevalent economic climate; but then you learn that the top executives in your company are heading off to an expensive five star resort in Bali for a strategic retreat. This type of lie poisons the workplace, and really undermines trust.

So what do you think? Small lies are okay, but avoid the larger more destructive ones? Or, should you just take your cue from our finance minister, and come clean with the truth, at the workplace?

Shankar R. Santhiram is managing consultant and executive leadership coach at EQTD Consulting. He is also the author of the national bestseller “So, You Want To Get Promoted?”

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