Telling White Lies at Work
Have you ever heard of or used the idiom, “A little white lie never hurt anyone?” Most of us fib from time to time, using a seemingly insignificant lie to help us manage uncomfortable situations. Two examples may include telling your friend her haircut looks nice even when it doesn’t or telling your boss you were late to work because there was traffic even though you actually overslept. In one scenario, you’re avoiding hurt feelings, and in the other, you’re covering up a moment of poor time management.
For this project, we surveyed over 1,000 full-time salaried employees on which white lies they tell at work, who tells them, and how often they choose to use them. Keep reading to see what we learned.
No Harm, No Foul?
Of all the lies respondents said they use at work, the top two included not feeling well and having plans for after-business hours. Other common lies regarded tardiness to the office, the status of a project, and being tired. How many of these have you used? And how harmful are they really?
Employees played the “I don’t feel well” card at 60%, but only 28% of respondents considered this lie as truly harmless. By comparison, “I already have plans” was just as popular, but 54% of respondents said it was harmless. Managers reported their top three white lies to include having a limited budget, bumping up project deadlines, and taking credit for an idea that wasn’t theirs.
The people surveyed lied at work at different rates depending on their job level. The supervisors in our survey lied the most with 37% reporting fibbing at least once a week. Entry-level and associate positions reported lying less overall: 41% of entry-level workers and 36% of associates said they lied once every few months or less.
Even though we all lie, we tend to direct these untruths at different people based on our level of management. Those in lower levels of power said they were more likely to lie to their supervisors than co-workers at the same level, but people in the middle tended to spread their fibs to co-workers and bosses at about 40% each. Interestingly, managers were inclined to lie nearly evenly to all three levels of power.
Psychology Today calls this practice prosocial lying and says our circumstance fuels motivation for doing so. We can tell trivial lies to those we see at work for selfish gain or to assuage hurt feelings.
What Leads to Lies?
We use white lies to help us navigate difficult or uncomfortable situations. So maybe this statistic comes as no surprise: Respondents reporting higher work satisfaction told lies much less frequently. Those who were slightly or not at all happy with their work lied more than twice as often as respondents who were extremely happy with their job.
According to The Washington Post, “We are more likely to lie, research shows, when we are able to rationalize it, when we are stressed and fatigued, or when we see others being dishonest.”
Typically, unhappy employees will be more stressed and annoyed with being at work. Give them responsibilities and expect them to interact respectfully with co-workers or clients? Not a good combination. Respondents are likely to use white lies to ignore or suppress those uncomfortable feelings.
Stress Starts and Ends the Week
The above conclusion applies also to when people lie. Our survey shows people told white lies exponentially more on Mondays and Fridays, typically the days of greatest work strain.
Another explanation may be related to how common lies are told for not coming into work. Monday and Friday arguably present the greatest temptation to extend one’s weekend or to leave the office early.
Truth Be Told
The assumption that people lie to avoid hurt feelings proves true. In fact, 65% of women and 62% of men justified telling white lies if it correlated to easier interactions with co-workers. For people you see five days a week, keeping the peace can mean a world of difference.
The other assumption that we lie to cover ourselves? More than 68% of men and women reported justifying situations that directly affected the work experience: the chance of a raise or promotion or avoiding reprimand. Even though both genders pointed to this assumption, men tended to justify lying 10 percentage points more than women for situations that resulted in personal gain.
When you want to take a day off without using vacation or sick time, what do you tell your boss? Depending on your age, that answer may change. More than half of Gen Zers and millennial respondents used the appointment excuse, followed by family matters. Gen Zers also requested work-from-home days but proceeded to avoid the work part. Gen Xers relied heavily on child issues as an excuse to skip work, second to having an appointment.
At the end of the day, though, you’re also entitled to privacy at the office. If you’re taking a day, it’s helpful to know if your boss prefers you apologize for any inconvenience and leave the excuses at the door.
Dishonest at the Office
White lies plague not only our interactions with one another but also with companies, businesses, and industries as well.
Hotel, food services, and hospitality ranked No. 1, ahead of transportation, public administration, and health care. Marketing and advertising, on the other hand, ranked at the bottom of our list. Other industries that showed up were retail, education, data processing, and entertainment.
Are you surprised at where certain industries lay on our list? Where does your company or industry place here, if at all?
Is Honesty the Best (Work) Policy?
Telling white lies can seem like an easy solution to get yourself out of a sticky situation, but it’s important to remember to not make a regular habit of fibbing to your coworkers. From the results of our survey, we learned that men were slightly more likely to fib for personal gain, while women were likely to use white lies to mend difficult situations. For both genders, the perception is that telling a lie like this is harmless and justifiable when it prevents a person’s feelings from being hurt. If you’re stressed, research and our survey say you’ll probably lie more, so keep a closer eye on your interactions at the start and end of the workweek.
If you find yourself lying more at work, chances are you may be unsatisfied with your job. Visit SimplyHired to explore a ton of fulfilling career opportunities.
Methodology and Limitations
We conducted a survey of opinions and experiences with telling white lies at work from 1,010 full-time salaried employees. Of participants, 49% identified as female, and 51% identified as male, with less than 1% identifying as a gender not listed by our study. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 74 with a mean of 37 and a standard deviation of 10.4.
No statistical testing was performed, so the claims listed above are based on means alone. As such, this content is exploratory.
Fair Use Statement
To be honest, we’d love for you to share our findings with your audiences or on your page for noncommercial purposes. We simply ask that you link back to our study so that your readers can understand the full methodology used in our research.