One of Your Direct Reports Is Lying? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

It has recently become apparent that one of my newer direct reports is lying. In one instance, he told me a presentation was proofed and ready to go and I found out it wasn’t when I went into the document on our shared drive to make a change. In another instance, I learned from a colleague that he had claimed to her team that we were further along with a deliverable than we actually were. And there have been other, less impactful, little red flags.

The crazy thing is that the lies are so easy to uncover—especially the shared drive documents where anyone can see the last time he was in the document. When I confronted him, he claimed he had completed the deck but the changes weren’t saved. We are a technology company so claiming technical failure can work when a whole system crashes, but this is just bald-faced lying—on top of unforgivable technical ignorance. It is one thing to be caught and apologize, which is what I would expect, but now it is adding insult to injury.

I am very clear about my expectations when new people join my team, but it never occurred to me to tell people they are not allowed to lie. I am so mad that I’m having a hard time thinking straight about this. I don’t know what to do. What do you think?

Liar Liar


Dear Liar Liar,

My first thought is no. Nope. No, no, no, no. Zero tolerance for lying. Then I thought about it some more, and guess what? Still no.

It is true—you wouldn’t think you’d need to tell people they can’t lie. But then something like this happens and you realize that what is obvious to you just is not obvious to everyone. It is fair to say that all implicit expectations need to be made explicit. That way, when someone does something you simply don’t anticipate, you have your explicit expectations to fall back on. Black and white. No grey area, no confusion, no discussion.

Potential expectations and grounds for dismissal might be:

  1. No lying
  2. No cheating
  3. No stealing
  4. No drinking on the job
  5. No showing up to work in a bikini top
  6. No showing up to in-person client presentations in bare feet
  7. Do not bring your dog to a client meeting
  8. No smoking in the restrooms

Numbers 5-8 are examples of expectations I wouldn’t have thought I needed to set. I’m not that creative. Just when I think I can no longer be surprised by human beings, I am surprised!

Now, there are the little fibs that many people tell to boost their egos, hide a minor infraction, or just entertain themselves. The thing is, if it doesn’t interfere with work or create static in the system, you probably don’t even notice it. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

You sound like a sensible person. You must have hired this man for a reason—presumably, you thought he was going to bring something worthwhile to the table. You may be considering the high cost of hiring, onboarding, and training someone new. In case you’re motivated to try to salvage this employee, and if you think this could help, you might share our extraordinary Trust Model with him. This model does what all truly brilliant models do: it clarifies and simplifies a deeply layered and complex issue. You might even share this step by step guide to rebuilding trust with him. It can be helpful for people who need to break lifelong trust-busting habits.

Or you may just be fed up enough to not want to take the time. It’s up to you.

Before you go firing anyone, though, I suggest you get HR involved and start documenting. Call out the behavior every time you see it and make a note of exactly what happens. Work with your HR person to decide in advance how many (more) chances you will give Pants on Fire. People lie for all kinds of complicated reasons, many of which would evoke your compassion. So you don’t have to be mean about it, but you must refuse to tolerate it.

Prior to his final chance, you can literally say “lying will not be tolerated.” If you feel like you just don’t have the heart, I can recommend the work of Dr. Henry Cloud, an authority on setting boundaries. His book to check out is Boundaries for Leaders.

Don’t get mad. That just hurts you. Stay calm, point out the lies, and your liar will either clean up his act or lie his way out of a job.

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is the co-founder of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Coaching Services team.  Since 2000, Blanchard’s 150 coaches have worked with over 16,000 individuals in more than 250 companies throughout the world. Learn more at Blanchard Coaching Services.

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