Truth, lies and the workplace

Mask mascarade2If you are a fan of detective fiction, you will know that no one tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Unfortunately, that part isn’t fiction; it is true of people everywhere, including the workplace.

Not many lie outright, but most people fudge the truth. They tell you what they think you want to know, or what they think you need to know. They will leave out what they consider to be unimportant or what might be misunderstood. All in a good cause, of course, nothing deceitful. Trying to help you get to the truth, they leave out those bits they think are irrelevant or would just be a red herring.

We are all so very good at justifying our own positions that it is natural to ignore those things that might be misinterpreted. We know, for example, that the other party was entirely to blame for the accident, and the fact that we were speeding had nothing at all to do with it. We were fully in control of our own vehicle. When the officer asks about our speed, a ‘little white lie’ (‘I was only doing 115’) would help the police get to the real problem rather than allow them to be led astray by an ‘irrelevant’ truth.

In the workplace managers need to temper their naively trusting nature with a healthy dose of cynicism. We need to ask questions carefully and clarify the answers we receive. In a previous article, ‘Problem employees: finding the real problem’, I explained that the excuses (valid or otherwise) employees give us are usually not the manager’s problem. The problem is that the employee is not at work at the required time or on the required day. The question is not, ‘Is he lying?’ or ‘Did that really happen?’ The question is what is the employee going to do about it?

There are other occasions, of course, where the employee’s excuse is relevant. And we need to have what one person inelegantly, albeit accurately, described as our ‘crap detector’ on full alert. It is here that policies and procedures will make all the difference.

For example, if your policy on medical certificates follows (as it should) the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, the employee’s excuse for not producing one when required means no sick leave. While we might accept the employee’s excuse and not discipline them for unauthorised leave, the days are authorised as unpaid rather than sick leave.

One company I know had a Compassionate Leave policy allowing three days’ leave for the death of a family member. To request it, the employee had to produce a certified copy of the death certificate, otherwise it was taken as vacation leave. One senior manager was unwilling to trouble an already traumatised family member and refused. One could fully understand and sympathise. But the policy was clear. If you want additional leave from the company, you must expect to give something in return.

If something is important to the organisation, or becomes important, create a policy. If timekeeping is an issue, discuss it with employees; explain why it is a problem, what you propose doing about it and what you expect employees to do. The same is true of telephone or social media abuse, absenteeism, issues around smoking or abuse of alcohol and drugs.

Once you have explained and written up the policy, stick to it. Often the problem is not employees who disobey policies but managers who fail to enforce them. When that happens, your best laid rules and regulations are worthless.

Share your scary stories below or contact Simply Communicate ( for help with creating policies and procedures for your organisation.

Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people and HR & people-management consulting.

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