SOCIETY

Hey, boss, your pants are on fire

At the office, lying makes perfect sense. So, go big or go home.

BARBARA RIGHTON June 5 2006
SOCIETY

Hey, boss, your pants are on fire

At the office, lying makes perfect sense. So, go big or go home.

BARBARA RIGHTON June 5 2006

Hey, boss, your pants are on fire

SOCIETY

At the office, lying makes perfect sense. So, go big or go home.

BARBARA RIGHTON

Prospective employees take note: “In the business world, honesty is rarely the best policy.” So begins a chapter called “It’s just business” in a handy new book about lying written by British journalist Brian King. In The Lying Ape: An Honest Guide to a World of Deception (Penguin), King explores mendacity in all its forms, including but not confined to such usual suspects as Martha Stewart, New York Times reporter Jayson Blair and the Enron crew, as well as used car salesmen, politicians, and real estate agents. More surprising than the liars we know and love to hate, says King, is the fact that each of us lies an average of six times a day, from real whoppers to slight obfuscations, omissions, false compliments and exaggerations. And if we didn’t, argues King, our lives would be unbearable.

Lying is so important, says King, that the poor un-

fortunates who never learn to do it will almost certainly be lonely—imagine saying, “Yes, dear, that dress does make you look fat”—and have a poor career trajectory. Quoting from the Harvard Business Review, King says dishonesty in the workplace (sometimes called “bluffing,” “misspeaking,” or “thinking outside the box”) is endemic “at all levels.” Furthermore, it is “permitted under the rules” of commerce. “You have to sell yourself to get your first job. After that you have to take credit for other people’s work to get promoted,” King says in an interview. “Lying enhances your potential, although people would deny that.” “Do you ever get the feeling your co-worker’s pants are on fire?” Careerbuilder.com, the biggest online job site in the U.S., asked this question in a survey of more than 2,000 government, sales, health care and finance workers earlier this year. The answers were eye-opening. Nineteen per cent admitted they fibbed at work at least once a week. Twenty-six per cent said it was to appease a customer; 13 per cent to cover up a mistake or missed deadline; eight per cent to excuse being late or absent; and five per cent said it was to look better in front of a supervisor or get another employee in trouble. Spokes-

IN A SURVEY, PEOPLE SAID THEY LIED TO GET ANOTHER EMPLOYEE IN TROUBLE. NOW THAT’S CALLOUS.

people Jennifer Sullivan in Chicago and Remy Piazza in Toronto (Careerbuilder.ca started up in March) were happy to talk about lying in business. They agree with author King that lying, usually, is bad. But sometimes, they say, it is tacitly, and tactfully, expected.

The Canadian and U.S. websites post a combined total of more than one million jobs, so Sullivan and Piazza know something about reading resumés—and people. Lying, they say, sometimes makes sense. If a certain business encourages what Piazza calls “risk-taking,” it may not accept failure. Ergo, employees lie. If workers feel repercussions may be career-ending, they may lie. That’s not hard to understand. King says we learn to lie at about age three, largely to get ourselves out of trouble. But lying to get another person into trouble is what he might call a really

callous black lie. Those lies are not unusual, says Sullivan. “Animosity could be driving people to lie about each other. You do see some backstabbing in business, unfortunately.” Lying, adds Piazza, will be with us, “As long as there is a corporate ladder to climb.”

On the bright side, King thinks lying sometimes livens up the workplace. People who exaggerate, for example, tend to tell more colourful stories. “Some of the most interesting people in the world have a loose connection with reality,” he says. “But that doesn’t really do any harm.” Literature and comedy are deceptions, he says, but that’s entertainment. Furthermore, if people at the office actually told one another what they really thought, the environment would be fractious, or maybe really tedious. Even the normal morning greeting, “How are you?” is never meant to be truthfully answered. “Fine” is much less disruptive to cubicle mates than, “Bilious, thank you” or, “My back is acting up and my neck has a kink and I didn’t sleep well and the traffic was horrible all the way from Surrey.” Because people tend to be ambitious, they want to represent themselves as “better, bigger, faster, more clever than anybody else,” King says, “and that’s because we are under pressure to produce from a really young age.” Blame society. “I am endlessly shocked,” King continues, “when I discover a car salesman is lying, but then again how far would any salesman get who didn’t lie?”

Of course there are balances and checks on the job. Managers learn to sniff out deceitful behaviour, Piazza says. And if employees steal or cheat or are caught telling black lies, surely they will be fired. Not necessarily, says King. “We have a phenomenal capacity to want to believe—and it depends on how valuable they are.” M