Wisdom//

How to Deal With a Dishonest Coworker

What to do if the "trust battery" is on empty with certain colleagues.

klss / Shutterstock
klss / Shutterstock

Trust is a key ingredient for a healthy workplace. And the countless decisions we make at work each day can make or break this trust. “Every time you work with someone at the company, the trust battery between the two of you is either charged or discharged, based on things like whether you deliver on what you promise,” Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke said in the New York Times. Keeping the “trust battery” charged can help you feel more fulfilled, less anxious, and even inspire your commitment to stay with a company or team longer. That’s why it can be so unsettling when a co-worker shows signs of dishonesty.

Whether they’re telling blatant lies or simply not showing all their cards (and you think it’s a bit shady), a dishonest coworker can impact your well-being and even your productivity. Use these expert tips to navigate the situation while maintaining your mojo and keeping your emotions in check.

Consider the motive 

Empathy and understanding may not be your first instincts when you find out your coworker has been dishonest, but Keith Leavitt, Ph.D., an associate professor and scholar of ethics at Oregon State University, recommends considering your colleague’s motives. ”While the dishonest behavior is problematic, it’s worth remembering that dishonesty is often used as a vehicle to build relationships, fit in, or protect one’s dignity,” Leavitt tells Thrive. Taking time to understand the why behind the lie can help you address the issue more constructively. 

Avoid shaming

Before you jump to publicly call someone out, “remember that shame can be disruptive to change,” Leavitt says. In fact, studies have shown that shame can lower self-esteem, lead to feelings of powerlessness, and reduce productivity in the workplace. Leavitt recommends avoiding making a comment about someone’s character (for instance, “You’re a liar!”). Instead, when you bring up the lie, be specific about the action they took (“You told our supervisor a mistruth and I’d like to discuss why”). “Any type of uncomfortable feedback is most effective when it’s depersonalized and it’s about the behavior, not the person’s character,” adds Leavitt.

Seek support from an “ethical champion” 

If you’re feeling bad about addressing a colleague’s dishonesty, Samir Nurmohamed, Ph.D., an assistant professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania, recommends finding an “ethical champion” — an employee who plays a key role in making ethical decisions at work — and leaning on them for support. “Being near these people can provide a reminder of how being ethical at the workplace may not just be virtuous, but it can also have a positive impact.” Translation: Holding people accountable to the truth is important for the greater good of the organization. 

Set clear expectations 

While it’s crucial to be compassionately direct with a dishonest co-worker, it’s also important to leave room for a colleague to course-correct. “Offer the opportunity and expectation for improvement — let the other party know that you not only expect better of them, but that you also believe they’re capable of it,” Leavitt says. By giving your colleague the backing they need to do better, you can move past the slip-up — and may even be a stronger team in the long run.

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