How to catch a liar at the office

From little white lies to full-blown fraud or defamation – here’s how HR can spot those not-so-honest employees.

We’ve all heard employees tell “little white lies” and while most seem relatively harmless, they can actually have a big impact in the long- run – so how do you spot a serial storyteller? Here, the experts weigh in.

Dishonest epidemic

Most people tell lies from time to time and they’re probably more common than you realise – a University of Massachusetts study found that during a 10-minute phone conversation, 60 per cent of adults lied at least once.

Most of these are simply “social lies” or little white lies that ease interaction – according to a study of 2,000 adults, the most common fib told by both men and women is “nothing’s wrong, I’m fine.”

Lies like this are largely harmless but in the workplace, these “social lies” – constructed to avoid conflict and confrontation – can have serious consequences.

It’s not little and it’s not white

For example, you ask employee if they’re on top of everything and they say yes, out of fear for their reputation. Eventually, this worker will become overwhelmed and both their wellness and productivity will suffer.

Royce Leather CEO Andrew Bauer says one employee’s so-called little white lie almost lost him a major client.

The company was due to launch a new product with a major department store and a week before debut Bauer checked everything was ready to go – had the goods been ordered? The company’s operations manager said yes.

Two weeks later, Bauer got a call from the store asking when the product would arrive - that’s when Bauer discovered the order hadn’t been placed in time.  

“It was disappointing,” he said. “And it ended up hurting our relationship with the store.” What was most surprising to Bauer was that the dishonest employee had more than 30 years’ experience.

Michael Floyd, a former CIA agent, said employees generally lie because the fear negative repercussions – and the more senior an employee, the more serious the repercussion generally is.

The CIA way

Floyd says the trick to spotting a liar is down to how they react to questions – apparently, there are five signals that employers should look out for.

  • Non-verbal hints – people who make big gestures, put their hands to their face or clear their throat often could be lying.
  • Avoiding an answer – when some skirts around a subject and avoids answering the specific question.
  • Being persuasive – when someone seems over-eager to say convincing things in order to give off the impression that everything is fine.
  • Being manipulative – trying to take control of the situation by repeating questions or giving unhelpful answers like “that’s a good question,” or “do you really think that?”
  • Being aggressive – verbally attacking someone can also be an indication of lying.

Floyd says employers should look for at least two of these behaviours before assuming someone is telling a lie. When he sees several of these kinds of responses, he says he is fairly certain that someone isn’t telling the truth.

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