Who hasn’t told a little white lie or two at work? In fact, if a recent survey is to be believed, a lot of us do: According to a survey by Allianz Global Assistance, 49% of working Americans would fib to their boss about their access to WiFi while on vacation. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: A 2002 study found 60% of people can’t go 10 minutes without telling a lie— when you work a standard eight-hour day, that’s an average of 48 whoppers in a single workday.
People lie because “we—come on, we all do it at some point—feel fearful, uncomfortable, or wrong,” explains Karen Elizaga, executive coach and author of “Find Your Sweet Spot.”
We may lie to cover up a mistake or to show that we know what we’re doing when we’re really unsure. Or, on the other hand, “we may want to make an impression better than reality or take credit for something someone else did,” she says. “We want a promotion, or to get paid more.”
But while a white lie may seem innocuous when it doesn’t hurt anyone, it can actually have far-reaching consequences at work—especially in the security clearance sector, where trust is key.
If you’re caught, you could lose the respect and trust of your colleagues and superiors. You could be stripped of responsibilities, or access to higher work. Even worse, you could lose your job.
What’s more, “the follow-on effect is that the reference your boss may give you for your next role may be less-than-glowing—or worse, they may choose not to give you one,” says Elizaga.
If you’ve been caught in a lie at work, you must act quickly to avoid these consequences. Here, according to career experts, is exactly what you should do in the moments after you’re caught.
Own up to your lie.
Once you’ve been caught in a lie at the office, “the jig is up,” explains millennial career expert Jill Jacinto. She advises you not to backpedal or, worse, tell more lies. “Instead, be honest at all costs,” she says. “Everyone is human, and no one is perfect. Your boss will appreciate the truth.”
Most companies—especially those that require security clearance—place loyalty and trust at the top of their list of most desired employee interpersonal skills, Jacinto says. Being honest once you’re caught is the first and perhaps most important step in rebuilding trust with your employer.
Explain the situation.
You’ll need to explain why you lied in a non-defensive manner. “What were the considerations that led you to deciding to lie?” Elizaga asks. “Tell this story from a place of contrition, but don’t expect immediate forgiveness or compassion. You’re looking for empathy—there was something that caused you to choose to lie in the moment, and maybe your decision tree will resonate with your boss.” While telling a lie may not have been right, your boss may be able to understand. “Maybe there’s a chance they would have done the same thing in a moment of panic,” she says.
Now that you’ve admitted you’ve lied and explained why, “you have to verbally apologize,” says Jacinto. She warns you against making an insincere apology. “Short and sweet will do the trick,” she says. Just “never say, ‘I’m sorry, but,’ because that counteracts the apology,” Jacinto says.
Elizaga also suggests assuring your boss the lie was a one-off, and that it won’t happen again.
After admitting your mistake, it’s time to mend your relationship with your boss. “Do what you can to ameliorate the situation,” advises Elizaga. For example, it there was damage caused as a result of your lie, “fix it.” she advises, “Even if it costs you money or requires extra time at the office, show that you are still a team player with integrity by making the effort to restore what would have happened had you not told a lie.”
Jacinto also says that your boss will now be watching you very closely, so in the coming weeks, don’t do anything that could further erode their trust and faith in you. “Make them see that they don’t have anything to worry about moving forward,” she says.