The ripple effects of workplace lies

2012

Few things are more frustrating than suffering the consequences that stem from someone's lies. I recently learned that someone had lied about me (to cover her own unethical behavior) and those lies cost me greatly in terms of business as well as friendships. Although the truth of the matter is finally on the table, plenty of damage was done.

A survey conducted at CareerBuilder.com revealed that nearly 20 percent of people tell lies at work each week, and 15 percent of people reported they had actually been caught lying.

People lie for myriad reasons. They lie because they're trying to please customers or because they don't want to get punished for making a mistake. They lie because they're ashamed, or because they're trying to manipulate a situation to their favor.

Lying also takes place when people deliberately fail to disclose something, but it most commonly occurs as a purposeful statement or effort that's intended to deceive.

If these are the common motivations for lying, what are the ripple effects? Let's consider a few examples.

Perhaps you heard about a young author named Kaavya Viswanathan. At 19, she had penned a popular book and DreamWorks had signed a deal to make it into a movie. The problem? Viswanathan had plagiarized portions of her book from another author, Megan McCafferty.

Viswanathan's publisher stood by her, saying that any similarity in wording was "unintentional and unconscious," but soon it was discovered that more than 45 sections of the book had been lifted from McCafferty's work. Viswanathan's publisher cancelled her next book contract and DreamWorks tore up the movie deal.

Ouch. The ripple effects of Viswanathan's plagiarism (lies) included a huge black eye for her publisher, which no doubt cost them in terms of securing future book deals with reputable authors. I have no doubt her lies also cost DreamWorks hundreds (if not thousands) of man-hours and all the wages associated with that.

And what of the projects that deserved DreamWorks' attention but were ignored because Dreamworks employees were spending time adapting Viswanathan's book? It's my guess, too, that any future endeavor Viswanathan takes will be met with skepticism, even though she later graduated from Harvard University with honors.

That's a lot of painful ripple effects because of one 19-year old trying to deceive others.

Consider also the case of Richard (not his real name), who was accused of sexual harassment at his work. The woman who made the claim was Richard's co-worker, assigned to various projects with him. Without saying anything to Richard, the woman reported to HR that Richard was "undressing her with his eyes."

As a result, Richard was forced to attend sexual harassment training and a permanent note was made in his file. He was told that any further complaint against him would result in termination.

Richard insisted that he did not do what he was accused of, but HR was adamant. They said it didn't matter; as long as the woman felt sexually harassed, she was sexually harassed.

For what it's worth, one day Richard learned the truth. He had opportunity to talk with the woman and asked why she filed the false claim. Her response was amazing. She said she simply didn't like working with Richard, but couldn't find another way to get out of being on his team. She also told him that she would deny that she said that if HR ever asked her.

This woman's lie was costly. First of all, the cost just for documenting sexual harassment accusations runs into the thousands of dollars. And as a side note, if such cases get contested, the average cost to employers for defending a sexual harassment suit is $150,000 per plaintiff.

Then there's the cost to Richard. Not only did he get branded and subsequently discounted by his peers, he also lost hundreds of hours of his life and the quality of his work no doubt suffered, too. The lie also affected his mental health, his promotions, and therefore his income. It probably affected his future job prospects, too - all because one person decided to tell a lie.

Although one in five admit to workplace lying, I don't think people give much thought to the fact that they will likely experience negative ripple effects from their lies. Consider people who embezzle. Their lies about one thing often lead to bigger and more complex lies. Then, when they're caught, they end up in prison and their family is broken-hearted. What people need to realize is that telling small lies can be like an addictive gateway drug that leads to bigger, more devastating lies.

If you're accustomed to lying, beware: a quarter of managers report that they've fired employees for being dishonest. And if you haven't thought much about your lying, the next time you're tempted to do so, let me ask: "Do you want the ripple effects of that?"

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Dan Bobinski is a training specialist, author, and an accomplished keynote speaker. He's been providing management and leadership training to Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller, regional concerns for more than 20 years.

Older Comments

Dan, I'd like to share a couple of thoughts.

1. When folks lie, I feel it's because in that moment they see lying as 'the right thing to do.' In their own minds they rationalize, justify, and excuse it as 'OK.' That's where they are in that moment. When they view lying that way, they are seldom concerned about ripple effects, or consequences - intended or unintended.

2. Most folks lie, in my opinion, out of some flavor of fear. Fear of what? Loss of control, recognition or security - mental, physical, emotional, psychological, social, financial, etc.

In that place, folks are caught up in survival mode - in the amygdala brain -the emotional, reactive - fight or flight - area of the brain. In that hijacked mode, it's almost impossible to be rational, that is, operating from the logical, 'thinking' neo-cortex brain. The fear allows them to say they're being 'rational' in lying, but it's the farthest thing from the truth. They're trying to survive and in this state 'I'm all that matters.'

So, for me, one solution, in addition to asking folks to be conscious of ripple effects (which is important to consider, I agree), but also to get folks to tug on their own sleeves and reflect on what fears they're experiencing (a root cause approach) and why. And then to support them to consider strategies and steps that will allow them to move through their fears in a way that does not harm themself, or others.

peter vajda atlanta, ga