Let's say your worker calls in sick on Monday, claiming she's got the flu. Later that night, you bump into her at a concert, and she seems just fine.
Did she lie to you? And if she did, is her deception grounds for firing?
A discussion on whether to fire a worker for lying surfaced late last year on SHRM Connect, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) online discussion platform for SHRM members. And it was clear that opinions were mixed.
Respondents on the online chat and workplace experts interviewed for this article agreed that there are varying degrees of lies, and employers must consider that when deciding whether to discipline a worker for being deceptive.
"I hear about liars all the time from my clients," said Traci Brown, a body language expert and author of How to Detect Lies, Fraud and Identity Theft (Traci Brown Inc., 2017). "Most lie about benign things, like tall tales about their family or what they did over the weekend."
SHRM Members Weigh In
The SHRM Connect discussion arose after one HR professional told of a worker who said he'd met with a client, but he hadn't. The same worker had been placed on a performance improvement plan five days earlier, and the poster noted that his behavior didn't seem much better. The poster asked for advice about what to do.
Many of those responding to the writer's query advised firing the employee.
Other respondents cautioned the poster to double-check the facts surrounding the case and to give the employee adequate time to improve, since he had been on a performance improvement plan for only five days.
"I would not terminate for performance, as he has not been given enough time to make improvements," wrote Tracy Falknor, SHRM-CP, an HR professional who agreed to allow her SHRM Connect comments to be used for this article. "Wanting to terminate so soon after a performance review, five days is not enough time."
Technically, an employer can fire any at-will worker at any time, for any reason. But in the case of a suspected lie, workplace experts recommended that employers double-check the facts before firing the employee to avoid a wrongful termination lawsuit.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Involuntary Termination of Employment in the United States]
From an employer's perspective, should there be a difference between a white lie—meaning one that appears relatively harmless or trivial or is only partially untrue—and other lies? For instance, in the case of the worker who phones in sick and then encounters her manager that evening at a concert, should the manager assume she lied?
"I'd say probably not," Brown said. "Who's to say that they didn't have some kind of bug in the morning that cleared up?"
An increasing number of workers call in sick when they actually aren't, according to a 2017 CareerBuilder survey. It found that 40 percent of workers called in sick in 2017 when they weren't, compared to 35 percent in 2016.
"It is up to the boss's discretion, but he would have to prove you weren't sick in this instance," said Lillian Glass, Ph.D., author of The Body Language of Liars (Career Press, 2014). "If you called in during the day and said you were ill, and he looked at your Instagram or Facebook and saw you at the beach drinking and partying, he has evidence. However, if he met you in the evening, he cannot prove you weren't sick earlier. The evening meeting has nothing to do with how you were feeling during the day."
Lying about being sick is one thing. But if a worker's lie is detrimental to others or to the company, it is no longer a white lie and should probably be met with discipline, Brown said.
Such instances might include when the company loses clients or money because of a worker's lie.
"I think my clients in highly regulated industries like financial services and food have lots at stake," Brown said. "When process isn't followed and lies cover it up, there can be grave consequences. Lives can be lost as the result of lies. For example, what if someone lied about the temperature of the milk they were processing? That can be a really big deal. Fireable lies are ones that end up costing significant time, money or energy."
But before questioning someone suspected of wrongdoing, it is important to conduct a solid investigation into the details, which begs the question: How do you catch a liar?