Making Lies Work for You at the Office

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Finding yourself in a sticky situation at the office, and don't know what to do about it? Morning Edition's workplace consultant, Ben Dattner, will answer selected questions on the air or at NPR.org.

A new book argues that honesty may not be the best policy in the workplace. From Hire to Liar: The Role of Deception in the Workplace says lies and misinformation may not be so bad — they're an essential part of how business gets done. Steve Inskeep talked with the author, David Shulman.

The author's note here says that you teach anthropology and sociology at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Is that a lie?

No, that's the actual truth.

What's so good about lying?

One of the things that lying does is, it may not have a lot ethical virtues but it has a lot of functional virtues. Sometimes, one of the virtues of lying is to be able to bypass certain rules [that] people would think are unfair or oppressive to customers or clients.

Like the regulation that causes you to deny a refund to a customer? The customer doesn't have the receipt, but you know the guy bought it, so you give him the refund.

Examples like that. I've found some of the more serious deceptions in nonprofits — things like pro-environmental organizations. People may say the money is going to one kind of cause, [but] take a little more of it for another cause because they felt what they're doing is for the greater good. They're very, very morally committed to what it is that they're doing.

Another context in business [is] if somebody is bringing money in, people don't always like to ask a lot of questions about how that's happening.

I knew someone who had a job selling a product that the company had not perfected yet. He faced this constant ethical dilemma about what claims to make for the product, because he had a strong suspicion that they weren't going to be able to deliver anything.

It's a very great example, because the first lie that would happen is the lie that somebody might tell to themselves. In this case, it's not their fault that they may be misleading the person. The responsibility for a decision like that doesn't lie with them. They're kind of a neutral tool of management, and they don't bear the responsibility for carrying out the false claims.

Can you give an example of somebody who has lied to themselves about the lie they were telling?

Classic example would be, I'm walking down the hall with somebody, they see a coworker, they're like, "Hey, it's wonderful to see you, how are the kids?"

We walk a few more feet, and then the person says, "I hate that such and such."

And if I ask people if that's deceptive, they say, "No, that's etiquette."

And another example: I talked to somebody about their resume, and they explained to me that they had barely any experience at all doing a particular kind of software programming, but they implied on their resume that they did have experience. And I asked if that was deceptive, and the guy said, "No, it's just telling the most optimistic version of the truth."

Are there situations where you almost expect to be lied to? You expect the car salesman to tell you the good things about the car, and you know he might not be telling you everything, but it's what you expect.

Obviously private detectives. I'm thinking of the private detective who told me, "If BS were music, I'd be the philharmonic."

Excerpt: 'From Hire to Liar: The Role of Deception in the Workplace'

To goof off without getting caught requires crafting strategies to create a busy appearance. To do so, successful goof-offs use authentication practices that create a convincing image of busywork. For example:

Nobody really gets up to walk over to the next cubicle. But, you know, they'll just call each other on the phone, and they could be talking about anything. I imagine part of it is laziness, and part of it is to try to look busy. Because if a manager walks by and you're on the phone, you're busy, at least that's what goes through their mind.

Informants use papers and phones as props to look busy. Informants also avoid giving off telltale signs of goofing off, such as having screen savers visible on their computer screens:

We'd always keep tabs on the screen saver, you know. If it jumped on, you'd just bump your mouse real quick to make sure it went off right away, just in case they'd come by. And you'd always have your stuff laid out, so that it wasn't that obvious that you weren't doing something.

More collusive forms of covering up include peers who offer warnings of "incoming" supervisors:

We'll cover for each other all the time. A bunch of us may be sitting around goofing off, checking out websites or talking, and there'll be a guy at a far desk near the supervisor. If the supervisor comes around, he'll signal us.

Other forms of collusion in goofing off involve concealing that people do not have enough work to do. Below, in a dramatic example, a respondent describes a conspiracy he observed during his summer job working for the state, clearing a river of debris, that involved feigning the appearance of having work:

Employee: If you don't find enough wood, if there's not enough wood floating around, maybe one of these boats would be grounded, and not go out any more. And people would lose their jobs. So, a lot of times, we would have an agreement, it's a secret agreement with the fire department. Some local fire department would go there, pull into their secret little dock [and] put wood in our boats, wood that they'd found in houses, different wood that they found. And the captain would tell us to hose the wood down, make it look like it was wet, and [say] we got it from the harbor. The captain would tell us this. And we'd hose down this dry wood, and we'd take it back and the people [would] weigh it, make a metric ton estimate, and go down and boast, that this was wood that we found in the river. So there'd be a lot of that. And that'd get done in the morning [and] we'd go to lunch.
D. S.: So that it would look like you had done something? So technically, there wasn't really enough work for the three boats, but the idea would be to . . . pretend there was?
Employee: Exactly. There was a lot of pretending about the amount of work. This job just depended on the work, period.
D. S.: So it was a form of busywork?
Employee: Yeah, for sure. This was just outright deception, but everyone knew about it, except obviously the ultimate higher-ups. But I think people three or four levels above me knew what was going on, and I think people even higher had hints about it. . . . But as long as wood was being found, jobs were being saved; that's all that mattered.

This example involved an unusually complex conspiracy that involved many people. More often, the types of stories I heard concerned individual strategies to avoid getting caught. In one case, I interviewed a computer software consultant who said that "my real goal at work is to do as little work as possible while getting paid as much as possible. That's it, and I don't feel bad about it at all." I asked this man how he hid not working at his job. He then outlined a lengthy series of rules that enabled him to mimic working while not working:

D. S.: What are the strategies, while you're at the offi ce, to do the least work possible? I know that you do the work in blocks, so what are you doing?
Consultant: I guess you gotta figure out what you have to do for the day, or what people expect. There are always emergencies, especially in the computer business. And they come and say, "Mr. [Jones] has to have this included into it, and we need it right away." I'll sit down—it can take me the rest of the day.
D. S.: So rule number one is, handle emergencies always.
Consultant: Right.
D. S.: Rule number—imagine you're writing a book on how to do this.
Consultant: Rule number two: figure out the things that need to be done for the end of the day that people are expecting for tomorrow.
D. S.: Know what people want. . . .
Consultant: You have to always know what people are expecting. . . .Sometimes there are weeks when all the people are busy, and they forget about you entirely. Those weeks, I pretty much don't do any work at all.
D. S.: But you're still sitting there.
Consultant: Yeah, well, you do gotta go in to work and collect the money, or you can't pay your rent.
D. S.: This is the specific strategy part I'm interested in looking at. What do you do that day? I know you've talked about the Internet, but what is it you take advantage of that enables you to do that?
Consultant: I really don't do much all day. Like on a day when people are out of the office or at a meeting . . . I'm a consultant, so I don't go to the meetings.
D. S.: So do you think you have a special ability to do this because you're a consultant? That you'd ever be able to carry it off in a regular . . . ?
Consultant: No, it happened when I was working for them full-time. If I'm not involved with something and everyone's off doing their own thing they don't expect anything—it seems that way, anyway. Those people, they're so concerned with their own little world, that if you didn't produce anything, they'd still think you've done something, because they've been busy all day.
D. S.: So one reason is their lack of technical expertise?
Consultant: No, they're almost always just as technical as I am. Except that, they seem so busy, that I guess they assume that I'm busy as well.
D. S.: So one thing is that you can claim. . .
Consultant: I can always fall back on, "I ran into a problem." That's for my own mind. Because I can't imagine them saying, "It's not ready yet?" Unless you have a specific deadline, like a whole project's coming and it's due the middle of the month.
D. S.: But you could say, "I'm working on a bug."
Consultant: Exactly right. But I can't remember a time when they really said . . .
D. S.: OK, so that's a default.
Consultant: I have it available. . . . I guess, for my own sanity, I know what I could tell them, if they ask me what I'm doing during the day.
D. S.: So some of the stuff that you're doing during the day is actually like busywork? Like appearance stuff?
Consultant: On the days when people are out and not expecting the product at the end of the day, I'll just sit there [and] type a mail message. Every once in a while I'll do stuff for myself, but it's rare. Like I'll write a small software program. I did this a couple weeks ago. When I download stuff from the Internet and it's in a format I don't like, I wrote a little program to get rid of all the junk. . . . And it looks pretty nice, kind of formats it nice. And I did that. Took me four hours to write that. Not work related at all. But it sits there on my thing. If I ever want to use it I can use it. And I won't take it with me because I'll just write it again, next job, as a time filler. There's only so much walking around the hallways you can do and going to get a Coke. Say I work a nine-hour day, and I take an hour and a half for lunch, so it gives me seven and a half hours to work. I could probably only walk around the building maybe half an hour out of all that. Or I could go up and get a printout for about an hour and a half. Walking into people's office, shooting the breeze. I mean, I can fill up my day pretty quickly. Or, I'm playing on the Internet and someone walked down the hall, I just click on my one other window.

This informant's goofing off routine reveals several ways to goof off without detection. One rule is to be aware of the expectations others have of your work. If you know those expectations, you know what margins for goofing off you have. Second, have decoys and defaults available; for example, be ready to invoke "problems" in a software program. Third, take longer to do everyday activities, such as using an hour and a half to get a printout. This informant also identified several perceptions in the workplace that benefited him. The first was a perception among other workers that everyone is busy. People may be too busy with their own work to notice what other people are doing. Of course, other people also could be goofing off and choose not to monitor others too closely in a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch your back" informal détente.

Excerpt from From Hire to Liar: The Role of Deception in the Workplace. Copyright 2007 by Cornell University Press.

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The Role of Deception in the Workplace

by David Shulman

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