Pants on Fire
How do deal with a compulsive liar in the workplace
My first newspaper job was as the assistant editor at a small community paper in a suburb just outside of Austin, Texas. Not long after I started, my boss hired a new ad sales representative. The rep (we’ll call him Bob) was a large man with an equally large, outgoing personality and a fondness for telling jokes and tales.
At first, as over-the-top as some of his stories sounded, my coworkers and our boss got a kick out of Bob’s anecdotes. I think everyone in the office had the distinct impression that Bob was spinning yarns. This was Texas after all, where most of the tales are tall and include a hint or more of exaggeration for effect. No harm, no foul, right?
About a month or so into Bob’s employment, however, it became clear that along with the seemingly harmless fables, he was also filling a veritable Pandora’s box with lies. From missed (or potentially never scheduled) sales calls and deadlines and made-up personal dramas to explain away lateness, poor performance and frequent mistakes, to easily provable falsehoods that had seemingly no purpose other than to confuse, disarm or otherwise mislead the other party, Bob’s behavior was becoming increasingly more problematic.
It may come as no surprise that our boss fired Bob after a few months. Since Bob was a salesperson, it was easy to illustrate that he wasn’t doing his job because sales numbers were down. Despite everyone knowing about it, there wasn’t a need to bring the compulsive lying into the equation.
It’s not always that simple, however, and nearly everyone has dealt with a “Bob” in his or her career. So, what are you supposed to do if one of your employees or a coworker is a compulsive liar?
According to a 2017 piece by HR Digest editor Priyansha Mistry, “Compulsive lying is caused by low self-esteem. Lying becomes second nature, and like any behavior, which provides comfort and an escape (for instance, alcohol and drugs), lying feels safe and fuels the desire to lie even more.”
Often, this type of liar tells low-risk, seemingly “harmless” lies that have no impact on anyone around them, other than to breed mistrust and, most likely, pity from coworkers and management. If you are dealing with this type of liar, who otherwise seems to do their job and isn’t bothering anyone, it’s tempting to let sleeping dogs, well, lie. But, it’s also hard to tell whether or not the lies are harmless unless they are affecting the perpetrator’s work or those around them lodge complaints.
Mistry advises that either way, it’s important to hold the liar accountable for their behavior. “Do not praise the liar,” she writes, cautioning to do this in private. “Tell them that you are aware of it and it is not acceptable. Try to understand what motivates them to lie compulsively. Talk to your supervisor if the compulsive liar at work is creating work-related problems.”
Things get more complicated when the liar is your direct supervisor. In this case, Mistry says to “keep records and seek help from your [human resources] department.”
From an HR perspective, as always, documentation is key. Mistry says to “confront them in private, and if possible, record the meeting. This will protect you legally if you decide to terminate the employee. If the lying is severe and impacting, let them know that they cannot continue with their behavior if they want to stay employed with the company. While at the same time, document any complaints received from other employees.”
It is possible that the person will either quit when confronted with documentation of their lying or get terminated if the behavior doesn’t change. It is also possible that they might become aggressive, which is why it’s important to document and remain in communication with HR as soon as the behavior is discovered.
These types of conversations are always primed for awkwardness, but if you proceed with both caution and compassion, it could lead to a better working relationship and maybe to the person getting the help they need.