Three times you should lie at work

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Everyone thinks transparency and authenticity are great. But sometimes you need to rein them in. I've talked about how I do this with my blog, which is really an example of how I rein myself in at work. There are times we each have to do this at work, and in some cases, we need to lie. Here are three times:

1. Lie if you are a messy person.
People make a wide range of judgments based on your office, whether you like it or not. For example, a plant makes you look stable, and a candy dish makes you look like an extrovert, according to Sam Gosling, professor of psychology at University of Texas and the owner of the hottest head shot I have ever linked to on a university web site.

If you have a messy desk, people think you're incompetent. They think you are overwhelmed by your workload, that you are not conscientious, and that you are not thinking clearly. It doesn't really matter if you really are those things, since you are promoted and fired based on peoples' perceptions of you. You cannot control for what people base their perceptions on, but you can make changes in your life to change how people perceive you. So do that.

But before you say messiness should be acceptable, consider this report in the Economist, that shows people are nicer, and better versions of themselves, in an environment that is neat and clean.

This means you should consider making your office clean even if you think cleanliness is BS. And you can just pretend to be clean by making your office neat but leaving your computer desktop a mess (there is no research that says that people judge you by that.) And you can have your house be a mess. (Although Gosling has research to suggest that this will affect your dating life.)

If you want to control peoples' perceptions by managing the stuff in your office, read Gosling's book: Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You.

Before you argue with me about if you should have a messy office, please read this: I have already received many emails from people defending their messiness. And all the emails are lame. The research is clear. People don't want to work with people who have messy desks. Stop defending stupidity. Get a life.

2. Lie if you are pregnant.
It's illegal for someone at work to ask if you are pregnant. Flat out illegal. So give a dishonest answer. Because you are cornered. You can't refuse to answer by saying, “That's an illegal question.” Because usually this question is in an interview, and usually they are asking because they won't hire a pregnant you, and usually if you tell someone in an interview that their question is illegal, they will not hire you. So telling them it's an illegal question is pointless.

(Don't tell me you want to change the world by telling them it's illegal. Women do not change the world by doing things in interviews that don't get them hired. Women change the world by gaining power to make the rules themselves.)

Many working women ask if they should tell their employer they are pregnant. They usually mention how good a manager has been, or how much the woman likes her company. Listen: telling people you're pregnant does not help you. Ever. And there is no law that says you have to tell. And there are many laws, that are never enforced, that say that an employer cannot give you crap projects because they know you're going on maternity leave and they think you're never coming back.

Do you know why those laws are in place? Because employers do it all the time.

It makes sense. Women have no idea what they will want to do after the baby comes. We all know that. So why do we make women announce before hand what they are doing? We all know it's crap. But since we're all playing the game, say you're coming back. Full time. Really fast.

And tell them that only when you absolutely can't hide the bump any longer. Because however much time that is will be enough for your employer to decide how to cope with you taking maternity leave. And whatever you do, make sure you get that paid leave. It's your legal right (when you have it — few women in the US actually have it). Do not feel guilty that you might not come back. Who cares?

If you are thinking of revealing a pregnancy early, remember this: When a guy is dealing with alcoholism, or a divorce, or a kid getting kicked out of school, he does not announce it to the company because it might affect his ability to work. So why do women feel the need to announce a pregnancy before they have to?

3. Lie if you are job hunting.
Who isn't thinking about what they want to do next? Only losers who have no vision for their lives. Everyone has their eyes open because everyone knows that no job is permanent. People in their 20s start looking for their next job on day three of a new job. And we know that the most desirable employees, even at the executive level, are those who are employed. Which means that the top tier of employees are all job hunting while they have a job.

If you go on an interview, go at lunch, or take the day off. If you do a phone interview, do it at night, or at a time you can go off-site. The interviewer understands this. You cannot do an interview from your desk. This is normal behavior.

Your boss would give you very little notice if you were getting laid off. You can do the same for your boss. And anyway, what is your boss going to do with information that you are looking for another job but do not yet have an offer? Nothing. There is nothing to do except stop giving you interesting work. Or fire you. Both bad for you.

So instead, be a good employee and do good work while you job hunt. Besides, it's very hard to get a good, new job if you are not doing good work in your current job.

So why bother telling anyone? It's assumed — by any wise manager — that you're always looking. It's just like when you're not engaged. You're not engaged because at least one of you is still looking. You don't tell the person every day. But we all know.

68 replies
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  1. Jeanette
    Jeanette says:

    About #3, I want to believe what you say is true, but I am concerned. I am 4 months pregnant and just reviewed the family medical leave policies with our HR person.
    She and the handbook both say, if you take maternity leave, but don’t return to work afterwards, the company can bill you for the medical expenses incured during the leave. Likewise, I was astounded to read MN state law, where I live, confirms a companies right to bill the mother for the medical expenses. I hope I can switch to my husbands policy, otherwise, we’re going to be screwed with a big medical bill when I don’t go back to work.

  2. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    I can see how some would judge a person with a messy desktop negatively; however, I think it goes both ways. I tend to think people with uber-clean desktops don’t have anything to do, and are just “sharpening pencils.”

    It’s been said before in these comments, but was not addressed.

    I personally think the best desk is one that is somewhat organized, neither cluttered nor pristine. A couple files stacked on the desk and a stray writing implement makes it look like somebody works there, but can find what he or she needs and act on it quickly.

  3. lauren
    lauren says:

    I have a dilemma. I was hired by a cpa firm 3 months ago. The pay is really low, but it was the only option I had after looking for almost a year.
    Recently, I applied for another job at a firm closer to home that pays more. I was just contacted by the employer from that firm for a phone interview.
    Should I say that I am working for the other firm or just say I am unemployed? If I say I am working for the other firm, they may be suspicious as to why I want to leave so soon (since I have only been there 3 months)

    • jeff
      jeff says:


      You should tell the prospective employer, in my opinion. Be up front as to why you would want to leave – €“ after all, it’s the truth and the reasons are valid. Secondly, if you lie and they find out, it could be a big problem. Good luck.

  4. jeff
    jeff says:


    You should tell the prospective employer, in my opinion. Be up front as to why you would want to leave – after all, it’s the truth and the reasons are valid. Secondly, if you lie and they find out, it could be a big problem. Good luck.

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  6. Alma Bruffy
    Alma Bruffy says:

    I was just fired for being pregnant today. I wish I would have read your article sooner. I though I was showing, but they had no idea until I told them two days ago…and today I found out I was fired. I am seeking legal guidance, but I am not sure if I have a case since they have not given me a proper reason for the termination.

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