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Lies, damned lies and statistics …

…oh, and research reports. And HR. Would you Adam and Eve it? Gor blimey, guv, strike a light … People Management have commissioned a survey into lying at work. Shockingly, this really actually happens. (No, me neither. Never. Wouldn’t dream of it. Cross my heart and all that.) Worse than that, it seems people are telling lies to HR professionals on an increasingly frequent basis. And they have (wait for it, wait for it …) statistics to back up their argument. Pot? Kettle?

It is, as you can see, easy to be cynical. The biggest surprise in the article’s quoted figures for me was that the peak age for lying is 25-39. As Samuel Butler once quipped, “I do not mind lying, but I hate inaccuracy.” I would have thought that the ability of familiarity to breed contempt might have made some of our more experienced workers more tempted to just … you know, bend the truth a little.

Indeed, my biggest reaction to the article was – perhaps sadly, but then I’m not as young as I once was – cynicism. Not least as the self-serving nature of commissioned surveys that lead to paragraphs such as:

[…] HR professionals believed themselves to be the most honest, with 41 per cent claiming they told no lies at all and 49.9 per cent reporting they only told between one and four lies a week.

And, as Butler also quipped:

Lying has a kind of respect and reverence with it. We pay a person the compliment of acknowledging his superiority whenever we lie to him.”

Like any kind of behaviour, inside the office or out, lying is an aspect of culture and values. And like so much of culture and values, we tend to take cues from our environment. It doesn’t take long with Google – certainly not long enough to count as dedicatedly subversive – to unearth articles like 39 More Secrets Your HR Person Won’t Tell You, What Your HR Person Won’t Tell You About Being Fired, What HR People Won’t Tell You About the Job Interview, What HR People Won’t Tell You About Salaries and Raises at the hotbed of rebellion, the Readers Digest. As one anonymous HR professional in one of these articles said, “Seriously, people. There’s an Internet. Look it up.”

We can try to imagine a world in which everyone tells the unvarnished and complete truth the whole time. Actually, we don’t need to make the effort. A 2009 film, The Invention of Lying, posited just such a world. It wasn’t perhaps the world’s greatest film (honestly, I’m summarising the general critical reception, as Rotten Tomatoes will confirm), but it did make a few important points along the way. As one reviewer, Roger Ebert, commented:

Mark lives in a typical little city with bland people and no anger. Everyone always believes everyone else. I wonder if politics are even possible. We see this isn’t an ideal situation. There are no consolations. Nothing eases the way.”

If the film partly argues that deceit is a fundamental component of hope, it isn’t the first explanation of a recurrent human tendency. Many decades earlier, the Chinese writer Lin Yutang made a similar comment on the role that being less than scrupulously honest plays in our interactions:

Society can exist only on the basis that there is some amount of polished lying and that no one says exactly what he thinks.”

Other minds that have received more than the typical share of public praise have commented too. Susan Sontag, for example, once offered a definition: “Lying is the most simple form of self-defence.”

While People Management sees HR Professionals being happy to point the finger, wouldn’t a more enquiring mind want to understand more about cause and effect? Consider the following quote from a Susan Heathfield article, where she quotes from a reader’s comment on an earlier blog posting:

HR staff feel the need to put a ‘friendly face’ on all interactions, empathizing and finding common ground with employee concerns. However, they do not work with other employees on a regular basis, so they’re empathetic strangers. It rings false, and no bond can be established on this basis.”

The most interesting element of the People Management article to me is the contribution of Cass Business School’s Professor Roger Steare, who divides ‘lies’ into two categories. Not black and white, as you might expect, but lies for personal gain and the lies we tell “to maintain co-operative relationships”. (In a comment we hope was fed back to the survey’s respondents he also points out that “Anyone who says they never lie is deluded.” Presumably we can argue about the exact definition …)

In a corporate culture in which lying is apparently becoming more prevalent, the lies for personal gain remain as irredeemably black as ever. But the second category – the lies we tell to rub along – might respond to what we might think of as a little ethical bleaching. If the culture and peaceful internal existence of an organisation depends on a moderately high level of mistruths to ‘maintain co-operative relationships’ then the culture needs to be reviewed. If people are lying in self-defence, or because a less polished version of ‘the truth’ would be socially unacceptable, the culture – and the organisation – are in trouble.

The question to ask faced with that kind of lying is not ‘What are they lying about?’. It’s ‘Why do they feel the need to do it?’. The truth – as, of all people, Ricky Gervais warned us about on a movie screen a few years ago – might not be entirely comfortable.

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