Moral Dilemma: Liar, Liar

"I love your new leopard-print gauchos, boss." "I can't make it to work today — plumbing emergency." "I was a member of the Crips." We've all told the odd tall tale, but how much fibbing is normal? And what happens when it backfires? MC exposes the truth — and consequences — of the lying game.

lying at work to your boss
(Image credit: Plamen Petkov)


If it sounds like the truth and it feels like the truth, so what if it's a lie?

The terrifying tale Hillary Clinton shared on the campaign trail about a "dangerous" trip to Bosnia in 1996 certainly made her look brave: "I remember landing under sniper fire," she said, adding that she ran with her head down to get to safety. The drama! The suspense! The ... brazen embellishment! When video footage showed her being greeted warmly upon landing by, among others, a button-cute, poem-wielding 8-year-old girl, The Washington Post awarded the fib the maximum four Pinocchios on its scale of untruths. Translation: a whopper!

Sure is a drag when those little lies come back to bite you on the booty. But politicians do it all the time: John McCain has been accused of lying about his connection to a female lobbyist; Barack Obama borrowed snippets of a friend's speech. And let's face it: Now and then, we all try to make ourselves sound a little more fabulous than we actually are.

Take, for example, a woman I know who made a former job on her résumé sound more impressive — implying she'd overseen all special projects, when in fact she'd overseen just one. When she scored a better job and the company trumpeted its new hire in a press release, guess what ended up getting blasted out to the world? Yep, the smoking fib-ola. She hasn't been caught — yet — but she has certainly paid a price in angst and sleepless nights.

Or take another woman who tried to gain points with her boss by arriving at work early, saying she'd caught a crack-of-dawn train in from Long Island — when in fact she'd just spent the night near the office in Manhattan at her boyfriend's place. "It turned out my train had a suicide that morning, so all Long Island lines were canceled, and everyone knew that," she says. "I looked like an idiot — and my boss asked me why I lied. Pretty humiliating."

Point and laugh at these poor unfortunates if you like, but who among us hasn't risked mortification and ridicule by telling a few white lies to appear more glamorous, brilliant, and accomplished? And who can blame us? It's like an arms race out there, with everyone trying to top each other in a desperate attempt to look like da bomb. When a woman you meet at a cocktail party tells you she has an MBA, speaks seven languages (including three you have to rush home and Google), plays nine instruments, and has scaled Everest, K2, and Kanchenjunga (wherever that is) with her gorgeous boyfriend — twice — are you really supposed to stand there and tell her that you barely earned your B.A. and are fluent in ubby-dubby (ibbits sobbo mubbuch fubbun!)?

If you think "Everyone's doing it" isn't an acceptable excuse, you haven't checked out, which offers helpful tips on how to fake a college degree (familiarize yourself with the campus and the local bar scene so you can chat about it), create fake references (get your old work buddies to lie for you), and more. "Human-resources managers assume that everyone embellishes, exaggerates, puffs up, and basically lies to some extent on their résumé," the site contends. "So if you're being totally honest, you're being penalized!"

CEOs and VIPs are doing it, too. Over the past few years, RadioShack CEO David Edmondson resigned after falsely claiming degrees from Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College; Veritas Software CFO Kenneth Lonchar resigned after he was caught fibbing about having an MBA from Stanford; and Bausch & Lomb CEO Ronald Zarella got nabbed for padding his bio with an MBA from New York University he didn't possess. Zarella's lie cost him his $1.1 million bonus, but not his job; the contact-lens company ultimately turned a blind eye.

Just this past February, celebrity chef Robert Irvine, host of the Food Network show Dinner: Impossible, was busted by the St. Petersburg Times on a string of remarkably ballsy lies — that he was a British knight, had cooked for presidents at the White House ... and had even helped construct Princess Diana's wedding cake. His contract won't be renewed.

An equally bold liar, Margaret Seltzer concocted a whole different life to make herself sound cool. She put it all in a recent book, Love and Consequences, which People called "a gift to us all." Writing under the pseudonym Margaret B. Jones, she claimed she was a woman of mixed race who grew up in a foster home and ran drugs for the Bloods in South Central L.A. — when in fact she is a white woman who was raised by her biological family in L.A.'s upscale Sherman Oaks 'hood and went to the same private school as Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. When her sister tipped off the publishers, the faux memoir was hastily recalled, and the press pounced. Whoops!

Clearly, it's important to select your lies carefully.

My sister, Turi, started her long, successful (and subsequently honest) career in radio by claiming to have experience she didn't really have. "I realized you couldn't get a job in broadcasting without having had a job in broadcasting," she says. Cleverly, Turi kept her fib modest, saying she'd worked at a radio station in Rantoul, IL — because who would ever make up a job in Rantoul? She then got her job training by walking around saying, "You know, this machine is a little different from the one we used in Rantoul. Can you show me how to work it?" She never got caught — and removed the false job from her résumé as soon as she had real experience.

Another friend of mine was not so lucky, stumbling into an image-burnishing lie that in fact made her seem rather ... unglued. Trying to cover an embarrassing gap on her résumé during a job interview, she said she'd gone through a terrible divorce, although she'd never even been married. She got the job, and her new boss, who took strange delight in the misfortune of others, was intrigued, and started peppering her with questions about her ex. "I tried saying he was a lying, cheating dirtbag, and it was too painful to discuss," my friend says, but that just made the boss more curious. "I had trouble remembering what I'd said my husband's name was, where he was from, how long we'd been married, or if I'd said that he cheated or stole." The stress of maintaining the fiction was one reason she didn't stay long in the job.

The moral of the story: Lie upkeep takes dedication, a good command of the "facts" — and a certain amount of guile. Personally, I learned I didn't have the knack back in college, when I had a job at a museum and, wanting to skip work one day, made up a story about visiting a sick aunt. When I returned, my boss asked after my aunt, wondering what she was afflicted with; I said she had cancer. Every week, my boss checked in about my poor aunt, and my story got more and more convoluted — chemo, remission, every term I'd ever heard on General Hospital — until finally I had to kill her off. I'm so sorry, Aunt Gloria, whoever you are.

Lying by the Numbers

74% of readers say the odd fib at work is inevitable.

47% say they lie one to three times on any given day.

71% have stretched the truth when calling in sick.

True Stories of Lying

I Lied About My Age

Cat Delgado, 50, substitute teacher, West Babylon, NY

"I am a very young-looking 50. One day at work, a colleague guessed my age to be 35, and I ran with it, letting everyone at school believe it. But one night we went out to a club, and the bouncer jokingly carded me. He looked at my license, did the math, then yelled, 'You're 50 years old?!' All of my coworkers gasped. For weeks after, everyone was calling me Mrs. Delgado."

I Was Trying to Impress My Boss

Gertie Johnson, 36, reporter, Nashua, NH

"I was working at a brokerage firm, and I wanted a promotion, but no one was taking me seriously. So I rented a BMW and pretended it was a gift from a potential client, to show that I could bring in business. It worked — everyone was impressed. But when I forgot to return it, a colleague picked up a call on speakerphone and everyone heard, 'This is Europcar Rentals.' As I raced to grab the phone, the guy who owned the garage said, 'Please tell Gertie to return the BMW. We open tomorrow at 8 a.m.' People stood up and applauded, saying I'd joined the world of deceitful brokers. But I didn't get my promotion."

I Told My Ex I Moved Away

Alexandra Widlak, 25, contracts assistant, Hoboken, NJ

"I told a toxic guy I wanted to get over that I was moving to Los Angeles. Months later, I was feeling the urge, so I called him and said that I had moved back and would he want to meet up. Over drinks, I told him about living in Marin County — but I pronounced it wrong. He looked at me funny, maybe because of the mispronunciation or perhaps because L.A. isn't in Marin County; it's hundreds of miles away. I figured that out later. And I never heard from that guy again."

Amy Reiter is an editor at

More Moral Dilemma Stories