10/23/2014 12:46 EDT | Updated 12/23/2014 05:59 EST

Should You Lie at Work? That Depends


I'm a terrible liar. Don't invite me to play poker or fib to your spouse since my averted gaze and nervous smile give me away every time. It's a curse -- or blessing -- I've imparted to my children, who find it necessary to list every item in my carry-on as I make my way through Canadian customs. ("Mom, does licorice count as food? You have a bag of it in your purse.")

Of course, lying is wrong. It dampens trust between individuals and hinders our ability to make well-informed decisions. Yet, we all do it to varying degrees, especially at work, in an effort to curry favour and maintain happy relationships.

But when does a lie move from harmless fib to firing offence? Wal-Mart's chief spokesman David Tovar was forced to resign in September after it was discovered he never completed his undergraduate degree some 20 years ago, as he claimed on his résumé. The lie came out as Mr. Tovar, who had been with Wal-Mart for eight years, was being screened for a promotion.

He's just the latest in a long line of high-profile executives caught lying on their résumés. They include former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson, who stepped down in 2012, the former CEO of Radio Shack, David Edmondson, who falsely claimed he had two college degrees, and Marilee Jones, a former dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who likewise said she had a bachelor and master's degree when it appears she attended only one year of college.

While all of these executives had managed to succeed without the formal qualifications they claimed to have, their eventual downfall shows that even lies told decades ago can come back to haunt you.

Chicago-based Brad Karsh, president of JB Training Solutions, a corporate training company that helps employees improve their soft skills, said that while such a lie may seem relatively minor -- who really cares 20 years on that an executive didn't graduate -- it's the act of lying that's powerful.

"If this person is willing to lie on their résumé, what else might they lie about? That's why there tends to be a short leash on this topic," he said.

As for day-to-day interactions, there are degrees of acceptability when it comes to fudging the truth. You might tell a colleague: "I thought you presented to the executive team really well," when you didn't believe that was the case, Mr. Karsh said, but it's more a matter of opinion than fact.

So is it possible to have a successful career and never, ever lie -- not even to be kind? Probably not.

David Shulman, a professor of sociology at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and the author of From Hire to Liar: The Role of Deception in the Workplace said routine deceptions, such as embellishing one's accomplishments, hiding criticism from superiors and pretending to like clients one doesn't like, remain more pervasive than the more serious lies associated with financial crimes.

Some professional settings encourage more deception than others, he said. Think private detectives trying to get information, political consultants promoting a candidate or publicists defending a client.

And a little bit of harmless deception is sometimes required to keep interoffice relationships running smoothly. Who hasn't covered for someone who took a longer-than-usual lunch or made a minor error?

But sometimes, competitive pressures encourage otherwise honest people to push their personal boundaries on lying.

"If the perception is that one's job or success is at stake, and there are serious consequences for being a 'boy or girl scout,' people can overlook or rationalize deceptive actions as being necessary or minor. Not everyone may cross a serious line, but they might move the line of what they are willing to do further out than they thought they ever would," Mr. Shulman said.

So lying at work is not necessarily as cut-and-dried as people think. While there is a lot of "creativity" around the truth, the irony is that in today's wired society, the consequences of being caught in a lie have never been more severe. The "little white lie" on the résumé has derailed many high-profile careers as professionals and amateurs work to "out" such untruths.

Employees need to understand the difference between lying for the right reasons and lying for the wrong ones.

"Deception that is a part of getting along with others and looking good and kissing up to customers is different from lying to abet a crime," said Mr. Shulman, adding "So I'd be harsh on harmful lies -- the rest are just an unseemly part of the current in which workers swim."


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