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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

4 Steps to Take When You Catch Your Co-worker in a Lie

Anyone who tells you that he never lies is lying. I know because I say this all the time, and I’m a liar. We all are. We lie to be likable, to appear more competent, to spare people’s feelings. We lie for many, many reasons. According to a study out of University of Massachusetts, we do it as often as two to three times every 10 minutes.

Most of us spin “little white lies,” the harmless kind that (usually) make our friends’ and colleagues’ lives a little easier. When everyone is kvelling over how cute your boss’ new baby is, and you think she looks like Winston Churchill, you join the chorus and say, “she is the cutest baby I’ve ever seen.” Twisting the truth is part of being a polite, productive member of society.

However, when a colleague is lying, manipulating the facts, and possibly affecting your work and your company, what do you do?

Here’s a four-point plan for dealing with the situation like an adult.

Step 1: Make Sure the Person’s Actually Lying

While this sounds basic, it’s also essential. So, before you get caught up in the drama, double check that it really is a lie.

In order to say something that’s patently not true, the brain has to do a decent amount of work. After it’s out there, a person’s mind has to immediately deal with the emotional consequences of guilt, anxiety, and fear of being found out. All of this is to say that you can often sniff out an honest-to-goodness lie by paying attention to subtle clues.

According to Vanessa Van Edwards’ site, Science of People, the first step is to get a sense of the person’s baseline habits. Notice how he acts and holds himself when he isn’t lying. This doesn’t involve any after-hours stalking or spying, just paying attention to common gestures and speaking patterns.

Once you establish that baseline, look out for the red flags that often signal lying:

  • Mismatched movements, like a slight affirmative nod at the same time he or she’s saying the word “no.”

  • Gestures that indicate information withholding, such as covering one’s mouth or pursing his or her lips.

  • Micro expressions, or involuntary facial expressions that conceal an emotion.

Note that Van Edwards cautions that one red flag or change in baseline behavior doesn’t automatically mean someone’s not telling the truth. Look for what she calls “clusters” of this kind of behavior—three or more red flags in one response.

Finally, go with your gut. Research out of UC Berkeley indicates that your subconscious instinct may also be effective in sniffing out a liar.

Step 2: Figure Out Your Intentions

When you have that first inkling that someone isn’t being truthful and you feel tempted to confront him or her, stop and ask yourself what your intention is. Remember, we lie for a lot of reasons. (In fact, research suggests a little bit of lying actually strengthens relationships when you’re doing it to help someone or protect another person’s feelings.)

Ask yourself what you really hope to get out of this. If you’re trying to unmask your co-worker in order to embarrass or undermine him or her, reconsider. Don’t be passive aggressive. Pointing the finger at someone and calling the person out for insignificant fibs, like signing the boss’ birthday card without actually putting any money into the gift collection, can backfire and make you look petty.

Step 3: Consider the Source and Weigh the Consequences

A study called “Honesty Requires Time (And a Lack of Justifications)” found that we’re more likely to lie when we’re pressed for time and when we’re in a stressful situation. (It goes on to say that when we have time to think about it, we’re more likely to be honest.)

Think about it. How often do you feel pressed for time or like you’re in a stressful situation at work?

This is not to say you should give your colleague an out or make excuses. But, you know your workplace and you know your colleague—so you also probably know whether or not the lie is (at least a little bit) justifiable.

Analyze the situation through your co-worker’s point of view. What does he or she get out of the lie? What does he or she have to lose if it’s exposed? What are the consequences for you? Make sure you’re prepared to live with the possible results that would come from bringing the situation to light.

Step 4: Make it a Conversation, Not a Confrontation

If you decide to confront your co-worker, deal with it as soon as possible.

When it comes to the actual conversation, you can start by calmly saying, “Something is on my mind and I wanted to discuss it with you.” Then state what you heard without making accusations, passing judgment, or bringing up past issues. If the lie affects you, explain how. Often times, people who lie on the spot forget how it could impact other people. Give the person the benefit of the doubt (and ease the blow of confrontation) by closing with something like, “Could you help me understand why this happened?”

If he or she is willing to take responsibility, consider forgiveness. If that’s not the case, consider your options. Keep a written record of your conversation in a safe place so you can refer to it later if you feel that the situation is unresolved and may require further action. If the lie is serious enough that you think someone else needs to be looped in—whether it’s your manager or someone from HR—you should do that. Just make sure to follow any protocols that are in place at your company.

Feel like you could more confidently confront a liar? Tweet at me @AmandaBerlin.

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