When You're Caught in a Lie

Research shows that people fib once or twice a day. Here’s how to avoid ruining your reputation and earn back trust.

Published: Dec 4, 2019

It’s easy to assume that everyone lies. It’s a daily topic of news conversations, whether you’re a political junkie or Hollywood-gossip fan. Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” its word of the year several years ago. And even some of the best career advice (“fake it till you make it”) embraces misrepresenting your abilities.

But the truth about who does and doesn’t lie isn’t so black-and-white. In a Michigan State University survey about the number of lies people tell in 24 hours, researchers found that 50% of the fibs came from just 5% of respondents. Six in 10 said they never stretch the truth. But when the lies got averaged out, those surveyed actually said something dishonest once or twice a day.    

It’s almost always the cover-up—not the initial lie—that lands someone in trouble.

What’s more, work is where many of us weave our wildest tales. Whether it’s due to overbearing bosses or the shortening of project timelines, we don’t seem to have a problem telling a fib in the office: 60% of employees have called in sick to work when they weren’t ill, and about a third of employees have lied to their boss at least once. Worse yet, 10% of professionals have gone as far as to make something up on their resume.

Of course, there are many degrees to any fib, and in some cases it can actually be a smart thing to do occasionally in your career. There’s a difference, for example, between not telling your direct reports about some ugly office politics, to keep them focused on their work, and misleading your team about your skill set, thus preventing a project from getting done on time. Here’s how to admit your conduct and make the necessary repairs.

Own up to it.

You can’t move on from a situation if you’re burying yourself in new lies or pushing back when it’s clear a coworker has called you out on, say, manipulating some data to your team’s advantage. It’s good to look to politics for this one; it’s almost always the cover-up—not the initial lie—that lands someone in trouble. “The faster you own it, the less the damage,” says Sean Carney, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. Once you’re caught, take ownership instead of doubling down with new mistruths. One way to help you do this is to examine in which situations you are tempted to lie. You may find that you fib when you’re in front of top brass because you want to impress them, but don’t do the same thing when you’re just speaking with your colleagues. Having this insight can help you own up.

Provide context to the situation.

There’s a difference between saying you overexaggerated your skills or made an error in judgment and admitting you lied. You want to admit the mistake, says Roy Cohen, author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survivor Guide, while also providing context. Was it something you uttered in a moment of confusion or did you say it because of the pressure surrounding an important project? Explain why you misspoke to avoid stamping yourself as the office liar.

Assess the damage.

After a lie becomes public, you’ll likely have doubters in the workplace, so it’s on you to assess and fix the damage. Are you seeing that your boss is asking you to take on fewer projects or your coworkers are avoiding you at lunch? You can’t control their reaction, but you can implement behavior that may change their mind over time.

Depending on the situation, you may also need to apologize to colleagues or higher-ups. While you shouldn’t be too quick to fall on the sword—something women often do more than men—you need to have the self-awareness and emotional intelligence to understand when asking for forgiveness is necessary to move forward in your work.

Don’t get discouraged.

When you’re rebuilding trust, “other people decide when they will trust you again,” Carney says. As long as you’re taking the steps to mend fences with those you wronged and with your superiors, while doing good work, the incident will become something of the past in most people’s eyes.

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