Ombud’s Corner: a world without lies?

Can a world without lies exist? Are there different types of lies, some more acceptable than others, or is that just an excuse that we use to justify ourselves? What consequences do lies have in the working environment? 


If we look in the dictionary for the definition of “lie”, we find: “A lie is a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive”. This simple definition turns out to be very useful when we feel stuck in intricate conflict situations where we suspect lies to have played a role. Examples may include supervisors presenting a situation in different ways to different colleagues; colleagues withholding information that could be useful to others; reports given in a non-accurate way; and rumours that spread around but cannot be verified.

Peter was very keen to lead a particular project. He spoke to his supervisor Philippe who told him that he had in fact already proposed him to the board. When he did not get the job, Peter shared his disappointment with Charles, one of the board members, and he was very surprised to learn that his name had never been put forward for consideration. Who should he believe?

Sometimes, a lie is implicit and only comes to the surface when the consequences of an action are revealed, leaving one with the realisation that they had been deliberately misled:

Carlo needs to appoint a project leader to replace a colleague who has recently retired. He sees this as an opportunity to reorganise his team and asks all the members to express their interest. Both François and Jane put themselves forward and he thanks them for their commitment. The same afternoon, the whole group gets an e-mail announcing that Mats, a young engineer from another department has been appointed to the position. When questioned, Mats tells them that this had been agreed weeks ago.

An act of omission, where the full truth of a situation is not shared, can also be perceived as a lie with damaging consequences:

Marc tells Anna that they have been asked to publish a status report on their joint project. He writes the report and sends it to her on Thursday for comment. Anna realises that the work of her team has been misrepresented and spends her weekend revising it. However, when she sends it to Marc on Monday morning, he tells her that the deadline has passed and that the report has already been published.

Finally, there are those insidious lies, based on rumours and obscure origins that are self-perpetuating and have long-lasting effects:

Helene is disappointed not to have been proposed for a promotion and asks Susan, her Group Leader, for an explanation. Susan reminds her that it is a collegial decision and says, “I didn’t propose you because I knew that the others would block it” and adds, “they all have a negative impression of you”.

Whatever the lie, regardless of whether the statement is totally false or only partially so, what really matters is the impact on the people concerned and what action can be taken to address it.

Challenging a lie with a view to understanding its source can prove to be constructive in that it may give us an insight into how we can correct misconceptions and maybe even restore the relationship and start rebuilding trust.

If, however, as the dictionary says, the deliberate intent is to deceive, we face a challenging situation, as it is extremely difficult to set the story straight without good faith on both sides. We always have the option of discussing the issue with higher management or turning to mediation or more formal processes to re-establish the truth, but this may turn out to be a rough journey as proving a statement to be false is no easy task.  

A much easier route, and one that is well within the grasp of each of us, would be to make sure that we do not give in to the temptation of perpetuating a lie. One way of doing this would be to refrain from circulating false information or even just sharing rumours. Perhaps a world without lies is an impossible construct, but surely we can refuse to be part of the game and choose to follow the path of integrity instead?

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by Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill