5 Surprising Truths About Workplace Deception

“Honesty is the best policy.” Sounds so old-fashioned, doesn’t it?

In today’s workplace, honesty isn’t always the first choice for business conduct. Fudging the truth is awfully tempting, no matter where you sit in the chain of command. From cooking the books to fibbing on resumes to having a co-worker “punch out” for you, there are a thousand ways people engage in deception at work.

Here are five surprising truths about the lies we tell at work:

  1. More than 80% of college undergraduates will lie in an attempt to get a job.

    We are told to paint ourselves in the best light when creating a resume. Well, it turns out that the vast majority of college students are veritable Picassos when it comes to presenting their credentials. One study found 83% of undergrads lied in an attempt to secure a job.

    Common deceptions on a CV include embellished educational accomplishments, exaggerated responsibilities in previous jobs, selected omissions, and skills or experience that have no basis in reality. Knowing the words on a Corona bottle isn’t exactly being “conversational” in Spanish.

    More disturbing than the high number of fabrications is that most of the undergrads felt little guilt for being deceptive, because they rationalized that everyone else was doing it too.

    While an embellished resume may get you the job, it may also ruin your career. Newly minted grads should be wary of ending up like George O’Leary, the Notre Dame head football coach, who was fired 5 days into his job when it was discovered that he had never earned the Master’s degree he claimed.

  2. You will be lied to on the first day of your new job—within the first 10 minutes!

    The lies start right away upon meeting someone new. So suggests a study by a University of Massachusetts researcher in which strangers were introduced to each other and told to converse for 10 minutes. More than half of the participants told lies during their brief conversations, including some outright whoppers.

    What’s even more surprising is that the liars had no idea they were being deceptive. When asked afterwards whether they had been truthful, most participants said yes. So be on guard as you make the office rounds on your first day: the girl in the corner cubicle may not be taking MBA night classes like she says, and the guy who claims to be buddies with everyone is most likely the least liked person in the office.

    If you’re outraged at the deception you will encounter, keep in mind that you will probably tell a few lies of your own, for good measure.

  3. Phone calls are nearly 3x as likely to contain lies as emails.

    Doing business today means juggling cell phones, texts, emails, IM accounts, even the occasional snail mail letter. We have more choices than ever before regarding how to communicate with coworkers and clients. The medium we choose for those conversations and negotiations does matter—more than you might know.

    A week-long study of deception across different communication channels found that 37 percent of phone calls contained lies compared to just 14 percent of emails. Face-to-face meetings and instant messages fell somewhere in between on the deception scale.

    The results make logical sense—the “paper trail” of email means that lies are recorded, whereas talking by phone allows us to weave a story without threat of our body language or facial expressions giving us up. Keep that in mind the next time you call someone for a status report.

  4. People are significantly more likely to lie to coworkers than to strangers.

    How about that! We are more honest with people we meet on the street than with the colleagues we work with for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. But why?

    Our motives for lying are complex. Researchers have identified nine major reasons why people deceive, any of which might apply to a work situation. Among the leading theories for our workplace skullduggery is that people like to put on airs at work, protecting themselves from being too honest out of fear they will be seen as pushovers. Fessing up to strangers who we will never see again, on the other hand, does no lasting damage.

    The power players in the corner office may have other reasons for engaging in dishonest behavior. Executives and salespeople thrive on power and success, and when either of those are in danger, it becomes a threat to the high-achiever’s self worth. The pressure to succeed may drive otherwise honest people to cut corners and slide down the slippery slope to deception. You can almost see Bernie Madoff and Kenneth Lay beckoning people downward!

  5. When the stakes are high, a negotiator will almost always lie if given the opportunity.

    A controlled study by Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer found that 100% of negotiators lied about a problem in the course of a deal. Some surprise, you say. We all have a certain view of negotiators—“dealmakers”—who are willing to say or do anything to close the deal and take their cut.

    Keep in mind, though, that negotiators include anyone who’s ever bought a house, leased a car, asked for a raise, or bargained for a t-shirt in a Caribbean tourist trap. In other words, we’re all negotiators—and many of us do some dealmaking in the course of our jobs.

    The deception that we encounter, and often engage in ourselves, is more likely to include lies of omission than outright spoken falsehoods. We can reduce the likelihood of lies occurring in negotiations by coming to the table prepared and asking the right specific questions. The BASIC method is a 5 step method that reveals the truth in any conversation, whether you’re investigating fraud at the SEC or negotiating for your fair share of the company profit. (Or buying a straw hat in the Bahamas, for that matter.)

Comments are now closed for this post.