When caught in a lie at work, you tell yourself it's no big deal: Everyone else has done it. In my case, I was 16, and I twisted my ankle while I was out drinking the night before. After spending the afternoon in the E.R. (convinced it was broken), I called in sick to my part-time retail job and told them I wouldn’t be in because I couldn’t walk. It would have worked had I stayed at home instead of rounding up friends and going to the movies to celebrate a night off. Because as soon as we got there, I saw him: my supervisor — the very one I’d spoken to hours before, who’d accepted my lie that I was practically immobile. “I thought your ankle was broken,” he said, standing in the popcorn line. “It’s sprained,” I said, trying to sound technical. “Which is why I’m here: I can just put it up and watch a movie.” He nodded, and I limped away dramatically. When I returned to work, I was put on probation. My managers told me that if I ever called in sick again (since I’d been doing it regularly), I’d have to have a doctor’s note or I’d be fired on the spot. Getting caught was enough to convince me to stop with the lies. When I moved on to a hostess job a year later, I never called in sick (even when I really was), and even now, I’m nervous about canceling plans. Why didn’t I just stay at home? Why did I call in sick at all? Career expert Lauren McGoodwin says that work lies don’t tend to come from malicious places and usually, they’re the result of do-or-die situations. (Like seeing your supervisor in a popcorn line.) "I don’t know if people consciously lie at work, but I think it mostly happens when you’ve been put on the spot or haven’t met an expectation of your boss,” she explains. “It’s those times when you’re surprised by the question and you give a quick answer without even thinking it all the way through.” Which is what happened to Justine, who got busted by her boss after claiming that her hangover was food poisoning. “I was just out out of college, and working at a small magazine as a copy editor,” she recalls. “I went out after work one night and had one too many whiskeys, and when my alarm went off in the morning, there was just no way I could get out of bed, let alone make it to the office. I couldn’t admit I had a massive hangover, so I emailed my boss — the editor in chief — and said that I had food poisoning and would be out for the day. “I ordered a grilled cheese and spent the rest of the day watching TV,” she continues. “But, I had longstanding dinner plans that night that I just couldn’t get out of, so I pulled it together, and cabbed it to the restaurant — a totally obscure place on the Upper East Side that I had never even heard of. “Well apparently, not obscure enough. My boss and his wife were seated at the next table. Totally mortified, I doubled down on the original fib, sheepishly explaining that I still wasn’t feeling well, but I just couldn’t cancel these plans. He probably didn’t buy it, but he was very cool about the whole thing, and after I stammered through my explanation, he cordially said he hoped I felt better by Monday, and we never spoke of it again.”
Arguably, Justine and I were lucky: McGoodwin suggests the best course of action (and the key to avoid further repercussions) is to admit your mistake and earn some credibility back. “I honestly think the best thing is to own it,” she advises. “Most of the time, your boss isn’t going to say, ‘You lied.’ They might ask why something doesn’t add up, why something wasn’t completed when you said it was, etc. So, that’s a great time to let them know that you misspoke or missed your estimated timeline for a project’s completion. And make sure you follow through — and, better — exceed the expectations you set after.” Kind of like how Amelia managed to exceed her own expectations after being caught during a faux sick day. “I was working as a ghostwriter at NYU while I was in grad school there, and I wasn’t allowed any personal days — only sick days,” she remembers. “It was finals week, and I called in sick so I could spend the day editing my papers in my backyard at the time, the High Line [which] ran outside my bedroom window. “At some point, a friend walked by and stopped to chat, took a ‘Look who I ran into on the High Line!’ photo, posted it on Facebook, and therein lies the epic scolding I got the next day at work. I did get an A on the paper, though.” But, even in situations like these, McGoodwin assures that there’s still a good chance you can come back from being in your boss’ bad books. “[When it comes to apologies], less is more,” she advises. “Don’t over-explain or give excuses. Apologize and let them know you’ll make a note of this for the future so it doesn’t happen again. The worst thing is to spend a lot of your boss’ time giving your explanation.”
What if there is no coming back? Or, what if you get caught and straight-up don’t care? That’s what happened to Scarlett*, who, after being caught in a lie by her boss, realized she was ready for a new gig. “I was away [for] the weekend to see my friends’ [band] on tour,” she recalls. “I was having a shitty time at work, so I thought, Fuck it. I’ll go away for the weekend. I was having so much fun I didn’t want to go back, so I stayed on the tour bus, but unbeknownst to me, the bus was driving to Dublin. “I woke up in Dublin and was going to leave in time to get back for Monday, but then Beyoncé BeyHive tickets happened and I was forced to stay. And, I realized: I don’t need a bossman. I can do this on my own somewhere else, some other way.” Of course, it helped that this revelation was brought to light via direct eye contact with Beyoncé during a rendition of "Independent Woman." “I did fly home eventually [after the concert],” Scarlett says. “I rolled into the office straight from the the airport after a 24-hour ‘bug,’ and my boss asked if I’d been at home because he recognized the clothes I was wearing from the week before.” Scarlett, inspired by her epic Bey adventure, quit her job a few months later, moved away, and has since found her niche as a freelancer. McGoodwin agrees that sometimes the best course of action is just to move on — especially if you’ve buried yourself in a pit from which you can’t emerge. Think: stealing or libel. “If there is no coming back from the lie — like you stole something — then it might be best for both parties that you move on,” she agrees. “The other is when you made a mistake, have been working for a good amount of time to repair the relationship, and there is zero change with your boss or they continue to pass you for opportunities because of the past. If your boss can never move on, then you should move on.” But perhaps the most surprising revelation is that less people lie at work than we think (or at least than are willing to admit it). When trying to crowdsource tales of work-centric deceit, I found that most accounts had one thing in common: An employee lied about being sick and/or injured, ultimately got caught not being sick and/or injured, and that was it. Also, most of these stories took place years ago, well before many of us found ourselves in our current careers. Next time you’re tempted to lie at work and you tell yourself that everybody does it, remember: You’re ultimately lying to yourself. Unless you have actually taken yourself to the movies with a broken foot.
*Name has been changed.