7 Ways to Spot a Liar at Work
Business + Economy

7 Ways to Spot a Liar at Work


The workplace can be tough enough without worrying whether your manager is really sick or just goofing off, or whether that document was really sent to your client on time.

As unethical as liars can be, psychologist Paul Ekman, an expert in deceptive behavior, believes that lying is a central characteristic of life and that “understanding it better is relevant to almost all human affairs.”

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“Lies occur between friends, teacher and student, doctor and patient, husband and wife, witness and jury, lawyer and client, salesperson and customer,” he says.

Little white lies in the workplace – and certainly big whoppers, too – are critical to spot so that we can protect ourselves, our careers and our reputations – and most of all get our work done in a productive manner. In business, lies can impact business deals, client relationships, productivity, creativity and much more. Experts offer these tips for how to spot signals of deceit at work:

People talk one way when they tell the truth and another way when they lie,” says Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception. 

Get to know your bosses’ and colleagues’ “baselines,” or the ordinary way they express themselves. Observe the words they use, how they articulate themselves. If you suddenly see a lot of deviation from that in a specific situation – get your guard up. Same goes for the pitch, tone and rate of speech, if they deviate from the norm. And if someone’s voice suddenly starts cracking when it never did before – it may not be because that person is fighting a cold.  

Our faces are often roadmaps of our emotions – reflecting everything from the stress we feel over difficult deadlines in the office or the upset we experience about corporate re-orgs. But when it comes to lying, Meyer says that “the tiniest shifts in facial expressions can give away lies.”

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Small movements around the eyes can distinguish between honest and dishonest smiles. And contrary to popular opinion, liars don’t always have shifty gazes; it’s the context of the interaction that’s critical. “A piercing stare could be a sign your boss is trying to lie his way out of a situation,” says Meyer. 

“The smallest, most commonly used, most forgettable words serve as windows into our thoughts, emotions and behaviors,” according to James Pennabaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Secret Life of Pronouns.

​When people lie, particularly in writing, they tend to use fewer first-person pronouns – words like “I,” “me” and “mine” – than those who tell the truth. It’s as if they’re putting distance between themselves and their message. They might email, text or IM a message such as, “The report was sent yesterday” – which is far different from, “I sent that report yesterday.”

“Some body language ‘tells’ can suggest lying – such as exaggerated eye contact when lying, or looking down, or touching the nose and mouth,” says Michele Woodward, an executive coach in the Washington, D.C., area.

Liars may also use “pacifying gestures, such as rubbing their hands together, fidgeting with jewelry, or bouncing their heels,” according to Carol Kinsey Goman, a management expert and author of The Truth About Lies in the Workplace. “But you should also pay attention if a usually animated colleague suddenly stops gesturing, has a forced or frozen smile, or locks her ankles.” Hunched shoulders can be another dead giveaway, says Pamela Meyers.

Genuine smiles are hard to produce unless someone’s expressing true joy or pleasure. A real smile, says Goman, “crinkles the corners of the eyes and lights up the entire face.” But a smile used to cover up other emotions could be a clue to deceit.

Goman says that “when someone conceals strong emotions, his face may expose the information in a split-second burst called a ‘micro expression.’ [It can be] difficult to spot because it happens so quickly.” Other experts, including Ekman, explain that deliberate liars tend to layer on other expressions – like smiling – to further conceal deceit. 

If you ask someone a direct question and instead get a question in return – sit up and take notice. One example Carol Kinsey Goman uses is this: “Did you pad your expense account?” Answer: “How can you ask that? I’ve been a loyal employee for ten years!”

Those who are out to deceive us “prefer to avoid the truth with quasi-denials and selective wording,” she suggests.

“One of the hardest things to do is accept that you’re being lied to,” says Woodward. The longtime career strategist says she’s seen “many people try to rationalize or justify a liar in the workplace, and all that really does is increase the frustration level. If you sense you’re being lied to, the first thing to do is challenge the lie.”

If you’re the boss, “correct the liar and stress that the behavior is intolerable,” Woodward advises. “If you’re the employee, you can still challenge the boss by presenting the facts. But if you see a pattern that’s disturbing, such as lying about safety or security, you might want to consider finding a new job. That – or use any whistleblower protections that are available.”

Bottom line: “Never compromise your own integrity or career because you happen to work with, or for, a liar.”