Pants on Fire

Dealing with manipulative and dishonest employees and coworkers — a five-step plan of action

Melanie Warner Spencer is editor of New Orleans Bride and New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles and managing editor of Louisiana Life and Acadiana Profile. Spencer’s ever-expanding library of etiquette books is rivaled only by her ever-ready stash of blank thank-you notes. Submit business etiquette questions to


If you’ve been in the workforce for more than a couple of years, or have worked for multiple companies, you’ve likely encountered a manipulative and dishonest coworker.

“Psychological or emotional manipulation involves using underhanded, deceptive and abusive techniques,” writes Joyce E. A. Russell, a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and the Helen and William O’Toole Dean of the Villanova School of Business, in a piece for The Washington Post. “They are great at hiding their own motives, while making others look uncooperative, incompetent or self-centered.”

Generally, this type of coworker is motivated by the desire for monetary gain, position and power or a need to be seen as right or a winner at any cost. Over time, the behavior creates toxicity in the workplace and, if ignored, escalates.

It can be hard to know how to interact with an individual whose conduct is so unpredictable, but, their behavior may actually exhibit patterns.

Russell says techniques frequently used by manipulators include “superficial sympathy or charm” (employed to control) or “verbal abuse, explosive anger or other intimidating actions” (to make others adverse to confrontation). When that doesn’t work, Russell says, “they refuse to admit that they did anything wrong or they use rationalization or some spin to make excuses for inappropriate behaviors. They might play dumb and pretend that they don’t know what the person is talking about or act surprised or indignant.”

If any of this sounds familiar, you have a manipulator on your hands. Now what?

Observe their behavior, noting which of the above patterns and tactics they use. Russell suggests limiting your interactions with that individual and, when you have to be around them, putting up your guard.

“You really can’t trust them and should not reveal personal or confidential information,” she writes.

Russell offers these strategies for when you are forced to interact with the manipulator:

1. Verify what they say with the original sources.

2. Be clear and specific about outcomes, holding them accountable.

3. Keep a log of things they say, because often they will say something and later deny it. (Document interactions in notes with dates, times and a brief background summary to give context and save email exchanges.)

4. Take a firm stance and be clear about disciplinary actions and other consequences that will be taken if necessary. This is especially important if you are the person’s manager.

5. Finally, Russell says, “When you first start defending yourself against a manipulator, they’ll try harder to control you. Remember this and stay firm, don’t get defensive and don’t take the bait if they push you.”

Clearly, the situation is challenging, whether the manipulator is your subordinate or peer. I’ll add to Russell’s suggestions that when possible, arrange for a trusted third party to be present during interactions so you have additional confirmation of the person’s words and behavior. By cultivating awareness, being proactive and keeping your boundaries, it’s possible to right the ship, or at the very least deal with a manipulator without too much drama.