Communication Currents

Making Sense of Workplace Deception

April 1, 2011
Organizational Communication

People spend much of their time at work interacting with coworkers. Peer coworker relationships are those between employees of the same rank and are important elements in organizational processes and work-life wellness. Peer coworkers can share off-the-record organizational information and are also sources of emotional and task-related support. Employees who enjoy positive and trusting peer coworker relationships report greater productivity and job satisfaction, making coworker relationships an important concern for organizations.

Unfortunately, deception is a common workplace occurrence that can disrupt peer coworker relationships. Deception refers to acts by which a person misrepresents information to communicate a false sense of reality to others. Deceptive behaviors range from outright lying to strategically omitting or altering details of information shared with others. Such behaviors are extremely common, with numerous studies revealing the average person uses some form of deception in one out of every five social interactions. Organizations function best when individuals work together as a unified system, so deception between coworkers can create individual stress and also provoke a breakdown of organizational communication. 

We conducted a study to examine how employees make sense of deception by a peer coworker. We interviewed individuals employed in various occupations and asked them to describe an incident in which they were deceived by a coworker. Our interviews revealed that deceived employees made sense of deceptive events by considering their deceptive coworkers’ motives as well as the degree to which their organization may have influenced the situation. We identified four distinct types of peer coworker deception:

Corrupt System Deception. Many participants blamed systemic company flaws for their coworkers’ deceptive behavior and explained that such organizations require employees to lie to survive. These companies were described as being cutthroat organizations in which deception was rampant. One example of corrupt system deception involved a coworker who, according to the participant, lied because the manager encouraged workers to “give as little information as possible to the other departments” and “intentionally be vague when sending the messages to other departments so they can’t trace it back to us if something goes wrong.” Other examples involved employees who perceived deception as a way to earn bonuses. As one participant explained, “It’s just the culture. So it’s kind of like a survival of the fittest, but you’ve got to be a dirty dog to work there. In my opinion you can’t be an honest person and survive.” Such workplace climates were incredibly stressful for honest employees who learned to survive by expecting that their coworkers will deceive them, adopting a deceptive work style in return, and simply grinding through their days without being invested in their work.

CYA Deception.  Some participants reported their coworkers were deceptive as a defense mechanism or coping response. One person explained, “I don’t know if it’s dishonesty, but people cover their ass, I mean they CYA. They may not necessarily do what they’re supposed to, so they do things to cover up some of their lack of performance.” Employees were somewhat sympathetic towards their coworkers in CYA deception and explained that these lies lacked malice and were simply an attempt to stay afloat and avoid getting in trouble due to an honest mistake. This form of deception was prevalent in highly complex organizations where coworkers could easily deflect blame off of themselves without directly implicating another person. Employees also explained that CYA deception occurred because their coworkers felt they had no outlet to confess their mistakes without retribution, and therefore resorted to dishonesty. As such, the organizational structure received some degree of blame for CYA deception.

Personal Gain Deception. The most prevalent form of coworker deception involved employees who deceived for personal gain. Many employees explained that their coworkers used deception to discredit other employees and make themselves look better within the organization. Other employees told of coworkers who stole money and materials from the company, or inappropriately took clients from other workers via deceptive practices. Personal gain deception sometimes victimized the organization at large, such as when coworkers lied about the amount of hours they worked. Personal gain deception was most problematic, however, when employees felt targeted and were directly and negatively affected by their coworkers’ gain. For example, one participant explained that a coworker wanted to get a promotion so she attacked the participant’s character and told lies to discredit her in front of the boss. In such cases, participants found it difficult to continue even a cordial working relationship with their deceptive coworkers.

Personality Trait Deception. The final form of coworker deception was perceived to result from the coworkers’ character or personality flaws. Some reported their coworkers possess avoidant communication styles and therefore tell white lies to avoid looking bad or upsetting someone. This form of deception was conceptualized as a mismatch of communication styles and employees found it to be an unfortunate but unavoidable aspect of relational communication. Other coworkers were perceived to have seriously flawed morals and described as “lazy,” “shady,” “sneaky,” and “unbalanced.” Employees largely ignored the organizational climate when evaluating personality trait deception and instead focused on contextualizing the vast history that proved their coworker was a liar. Employees avoided working with such coworkers and struggled to do so when their job tasks were closely connected. As one participant explained, “Personally, the guy really disgusts me and if I remember what he does I really don’t want to talk to him.”

The average person commits some form of deception in one out of every five interactions, yet these acts might be interpreted in different ways depending on other people’s perceptions of the deception. Our study suggests that deception is viewed as an unavoidable aspect of all relationships; however, lies that maliciously target particular coworkers or reflect a destructive work environment are highly problematic. Indeed, peer coworker deception can wreak havoc when it hinders organizational members’ ability to perform their jobs.

Organizations can minimize deception in several ways. First, employees will be less likely to engage in CYA deception if they feel comfortable admitting to their mistakes. Training supervisors to communicate more effectively and more openly with employees could provide employees with an outlet to seek help and repair mistakes without fear of repercussions. Employees make mistakes and providing a safe channel of open communication could prevent small missteps from becoming large problems when concealed. Similarly, competition is common in organizations, but it does not need to be destructive. However, many participants in our study asserted that coworker deception was a “survival of the fittest” behavior necessary to outperform coworkers, gain commissions, or be promoted. Notably, participants often blamed their company for either creating or fostering this competitive environment, which ultimately destroyed coworker trust and hindered productivity. Organizational leaders might help prevent coworker deception by facilitating a collaborative environment that rewards cooperative success over individual achievement. If workers personally benefit from lying, removing these individual benefits would also likely remove a common motive for deceptive workplace behavior and help shape a more honest and positive organizational climate. 

About the author (s)

Erin M. Bryant

Arizona State University

Doctoral Candidate

Patricia M. Sias

Washington State University