Detecting Lies in the Workplace

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD

I have written extensively about how to recognize a liar’s body language. However, it’s also important to pay attention to verbal cues, as people’s choice of words often reveals more about them than they realize.

Because most people experience stress when lying, they often try to circumvent that by speaking the literal truth. So, if your boss says, “I’m thinking of recommending you for the position,” that is exactly what she means. She has not told you she did recommend you. She has not told you she will recommend you. All she said is that she is thinking about doing so. In the same way, if your colleague states, “That’s all I can tell you,” believe him. He can’t or won’t tell you more. But remember: that doesn’t mean this is all he knows.

20 Verbal Cues of a Liar:
Unnecessary elaboration
. The more someone embroiders a story, adding unnecessary details and irrelevant information, the greater the chance he or she is making it up.

Change of subject. You’ve just asked your co-worker how his meeting went. He answers, “Good,” then abruptly switches the subject to ask about your latest project. He might be keeping the content of the meeting private for any number of reasons, but you’d be right to wonder what he was withholding.

Stalls. Repeating the question, asking that the question be repeated, or asking a question back rather than replying to what was asked—all give the liar extra time to fabricate an answer.
Question: “Why did you leave your last job?”
Response: “Why did I leave my last job?” or “Why do you think that is important?”

Selective wording. Liars often avoid answering the question exactly as asked.
Question: “Have you ever used drugs?”
Response: “I don’t use drugs.”
Question: “Did you steal the money from petty cash?”
Response: “I wasn’t even working that day.”
In both cases, people replied in a way that seemed to answer the question but didn’t. And you still don’t know if they’ve ever used drugs or if they stole the money.

Quasidenials. Liars may say something that sounds like a denial but isn’t: “Do I look like someone who would do that?” instead of “No, I didn’t do it.” They may even go into attack mode and try to impeach your credibility or competence with questions like “Why are you wasting my time with this stuff ?” or “How long have you been doing this job?”

False starts and repetition. Stammering, stuttering, slurring words, false starts, and frequently repeating the same words and phrases—all are signs of a higher cognitive load and the possibility of deception.

Grammatical errors. We all make grammatical errors, but liars often change pronouns and tenses in midsentence. Here’s an example of both: “I leave for the office about 8 a.m. every day, and then we stopped for coffee.”

Qualifiers. “To the best of my knowledge,” “I could be wrong,” “You may not believe this, but,” “If I recall correctly,” and “As far as I know.”

Disclaimers. “You won’t believe this, but” and “I know this sounds strange, but.”

Modifiers. “Not necessarily,” “Most of the time,” “Hardly ever,” and “It depends on how you look at it.”

Softeners. When describing a situation, truthful people tend to use assertive, unambiguous words such as “steal,” “cheat,” or “forge.” Liars use softer words like “borrow,” “mistake,” or “omit” to minimize the act.

Overformality. A liar’s language tends to become awkwardly formal and stilted, characterized especially by the avoidance of commonly used contractions. A liar might say, “I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky,” rather than, “I didn’t have sex with Monica.”

Credibility builders. “To tell the truth,” “To be honest,” “Truthfully,” “In all candor,” “Honestly,” “Frankly,” “I swear on my mother’s grave,” and “I swear to God.” Whenever you hear these words or phrases, a warning bell should ring in your brain.

Distancing language. A liar might say, “There were problems with that project,” rather than, “We had problems analyzing the results of the employee engagement survey.”

Depersonalizing language. Deceivers use fewer self-references (“I,” “me”) and more generalizations (“everyone,” “they,” “them”). For example, a liar might say, “The accounting department must have made an error,” rather than, “It was my responsibility.”

Hesitations. “Uh,” “er,” “um,” “ah.”

Guilt-trip statements. Liars make a show of taking offence in the hope that you’ll abandon the question while defending yourself. For example, a female liar might say, “I’ll bet you aren’t hounding any of the men about this. Why is it that you presume only a woman would be guilty?”

Convincing statements. Liars will deflect the question by trying to convince you that nothing in their past would indicate deceit. So the woman in the previous example might add, “Look, I am a hard worker and I have been a good employee here for 10 years. I don’t understand why you are treating me this way.”

Forward thinking. People who tell the truth tend to jump forward and back in time. Deceivers need to construct their stories in chronological order. Because they are working from a false memory, it is almost impossible for liars to tell their stories in reverse chronological order.

Inadvertent truth. Occasionally, a liar will let the truth slip. I once heard an executive announce to his staff, “I promise you that this restructure will result—I mean, will not result—in massive layoffs.”

Verbal cues are easier to detect if the liar hasn’t had time to prepare. A good lie requires rehearsal and memorization. If you suspect deception, it can be helpful to relax people first, to get them to lower their guard, and then encourage them to talk as much as possible. The more they talk, the greater the chance that they’ll say something revealing.

Listen carefully to what people are telling you. Stay especially alert if people tell you what they are not doing: “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way” or “It’s not that I have anything to hide.” Most often that’s a lie.
One final word of caution: When you and the person you are dealing with are not from the same culture or don’t speak the same native language, it is almost impossible to accurately decipher his or her verbal and nonverbal cues.

Copyright © 2013 by Carol Kinsey Goman
This article was adapted from The Truth About Lies in the Workplace: How to Spot Liars and What to Do About Them (Berrett-Koehler, 2013), by Carol Kinsey Goman. Used with permission.

You can learn more about workplace communication at these AMA seminars:
How to Communicate with Diplomacy, Tact and Credibility

Communicating with Confidence

About the Author(s)

>Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD is an executive coach, leadership consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is the author of The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work, The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt How You Lead, and most recently, The Truth About Lies in the Workplace: How to Spot Liars and What to Do About Them. For more information, contact [email protected] or visit: