How to spot a liar at work

By Kaitlin Madden,

Liars at work can cause all kinds of headaches. Whether it's guy who comes into the office every Monday with the farfetched stories about his crazy weekend ("I met this model, right ..."), the slimy vendor who misleads you into thinking you're getting a deal on office supplies or the lazy co-worker who constantly seems to be covering up one error or another, liars cause stress, tension and frustration for those around them.

Sometimes -- like with your model-magnet co-worker -- the lies might be annoying, but relatively harmless (it's probably more of a headache to dispute him on the facts than to just let him talk himself up). But other times, like if you think you're being ripped off, or feel a co-worker is trying to cover up a mistake that will directly affect your own work, it's important to know whether or not you're getting an honest answer.

To help you get an accurate read from your BS detector, we talked to Bill Rosenthal, chief executive of Communispond, a communications coaching firm, about spotting a liar at work. Here's what he had to say.

The Work Buzz: How can tell if someone is lying to you? What verbal/nonverbal cues should you look for?
Bill Rosenthal: Spotting a liar at work requires the same kind of observation that spotting a liar anywhere else does. Look for signs of discomfort, because most people feel guilty about lying. [These signs] can include avoiding eye contact, making excessive eye contact (which liars might do to "prove" they're being honest), being in a hurry to end the conversation, even pointing their feet in the direction of a getaway. Look also to see if the person is being evasive when answering a question, perhaps by feigning inability to remember something that should easily be remembered. Still another sign is the use of suspect data or excessive data when answering a simple question. Of course, a promise that sounds too good to be true probably isn't true.

TWB: What should you do if you think someone is telling a lie?
BR: It's best to keep asking questions that are hard to answer. The liar might back off by reorienting what's being said. Unless you're sure, don't accuse someone of telling a lie. It's possible the person was misinformed about something and is repeating it with good intentions.

TWB: When is it best to just ignore a lie?
BR: Sometimes [the lie] doesn't matter. Telling someone "I caught a huge sailfish" or "I'm a gourmet cook" may not matter at all if it's just small talk that isn't intended to further a cause.

TWB: How can you promote a culture of honesty in the workplace, either as a manager or as an employee?
BR: It isn't enough to have a mission statement saying the organization values integrity; the organization has to live it. Managers can foster honesty by being open with information. If they have bad news to disclose, they should do it quickly and without sugar-coating the situation. They shouldn't hold back on pointing out an employee's weaknesses during review time to avoid hurting feelings; it's a disservice to the employee.
Employees should be honest about errors they made. It's better to admit having a problem than ignoring it because the problem can keep growing. Admitting there's a problem can get the employee the help needed. Don't take sole credit for the work of a committee. Give credit where it's due. Don't make promises that are hard to keep. 


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