Are You Lying, or Just Not Telling the Truth?

Posted on April 26, 2023

Clothesline on a beach with water in the background. Pants are hanging from the line and they are fully on fire.

Today’s Morning Buzz is by Jackie Wehmeyer, Senior Director of Strategy and Intergovernmental Affairs for the City of Parkland, Fla. Parkland was named one of the Best Places to Work in Local Government in 2021 by ELGL and a Top Workplace in 2022.

Connect with Jackie on LinkedIn.

What I’m reading: Brat: An ‘80s Story by Andrew McCarthy

What I’m watching: Just finished season one of The Night Agent. Recommend!

What I’m eating: Utz potato chips – Grillo’s dill pickle flavor


After observing an interaction last week at work, I was motivated to write today’s Morning Buzz. An employee was asked by his supervisor to lie to a coworker. Although the intent of his supervisor was not to hurt anyone, the result of telling that lie ended up hurting the other employee.  Furthermore, when the employee confessed the lie to his coworker, the iterations the conversation went through were painful. Whew. The hoops that had to be jumped through to explain, try to save someone’s feelings, keep in good graces, etc., were completely unnecessary. The result: Everyone ended up feeling uncomfortable with each other.

Consider how often all of us lie at work every day. You’re thinking, c’mon Jackie, I’m not a liar. I don’t… wait, um…

Yep. You lie. 

And so do I.

Think about it – even when encountering the daily routine question, “How are you doing?” and you’re not doing well, would you admit it, or lie and say you’re fine? No one wants to hear about all of your problems. It’s admittedly a lie, but it’s not harmful to anyone.

When is it okay to lie?  When is it actually good to lie?

I recently read an article regarding prosocial lies. “Prosocial lies” are falsehoods told for someone else’s benefit, as opposed to “antisocial lies,” which are told strictly for your own personal gain.

We learn how to tell prosocial lies as children. Don’t tell Aunt Jeanie that her potatoes are burnt. When Dad asks if his haircut looks nice, just say yes, even though it’s horrible. We learn that “white lies” are not only acceptable, but they help spare feelings. And when your wife asks if that dress makes her look fat, lies help keep you from sleeping on the couch. 

There was an old commercial in the ’90s for Rice Krispies, where the mom splashes her face with water and poofs some flour on her face, then carries a tray of Rice Krispies treats out to her family, as if she’s toiled over baking them all day. Cute, right? Even Kellogg tried to tell us that lies aren’t all bad when Mom needs a break.

So admittedly, we lie at work, mainly in a prosocial way, but sometimes we run a split-second risk assessment and let a lie slip out. 

When do we lie at work?

  • Lies of omission
  • Lies to deflect
  • Lies to cover up mistakes or save face
  • Lies to spare coworkers’ feelings
  • Lies to residents
  • Lies on resumes and in interviews
  • Sick days

Of course, there are plenty of lies designed to directly deceive or hurt, and there are lies that can cost an organization due to fraud, embezzlement, and legal fees. But the actual hidden costs are those of organizational culture and employee morale. When lies are pervasive at work, people can no longer trust each other. And that can lead to good, honest people leaving.

As leaders, how do we encourage our employees to tell the truth?

First, we need to practice what we preach. Even one small lie can have lasting repercussions in the workplace.  When leaders lie, it’s easy for others to follow that example.  As leaders, we should be honest and human with our employees, especially when we make mistakes.

We need to provide an atmosphere of openness and trust, but most importantly, we must ensure that we foster a culture where employees are not punished for telling the truth. Too many times, I’ve heard an employee confess that they didn’t want to say to a supervisor that they knew something was wrong for fear of retribution.  

Coach your employees on how to best communicate disagreement, correction, or truth with others. No one wants to hear someone scream, “You’re wrong!” in a conference room full of colleagues.  

If your organization doesn’t already have them, set ethical standards for your employees. For example, our city asks employees to sign a Communications/Behavior Agreement, where some of those guidelines are set, along with our employee core values (one of which is truth).

I challenge you to try to catch yourself lying for one day. Who did you lie to and why? 

By the way, since you asked, those plaid pants with the polka dot blouse you’re wearing look fabulous.

George from Seinfeld sitting in the diner booth with one finger pointing up. Text overlay says, "It's not a lie if you believe it."

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