Lying Up on the Job: Does Deceptive Impression Management Work?

While lying in the workplace is prevalent, it simply doesn’t work, according to this author, who has conducted several studies on the the topic. In fact, the greatest risk is in turning a blind eye and making dishonesty acceptable. As the author writes, the potential damage unleashed by an ethically permissive workplace may far exceed the lost labor of an employee taking a short nap under his desk.


Discussing deception in the workplace is often uncomfortable. In an episode of “Seinfeld” (#152, “The Nap”), the character George Costanza uses his infamous hideaway-sleeping desk to nap unnoticed on the job. He is able to arrange simulated work items — hot coffee and such — on his desk to give the impression of having just stepped away, while he is actually hidden inside sound asleep. George is inevitably discovered “lying down on the job,” but the outcome in this case is likely to be more humorous than it would be for an employee who was caught trying to deceive his or her manager in a real company.

While deception is common in everyday social interactions (DePaulo, Kashy, Kirkendol, Wyer, & Epstein, 1996), its prevalence in business communication is less widely discussed (Carlson & George, 2004). In fact, deception occurs in business meetings, phone conversations, electronic messages, office memoranda, and other everyday organizational media (Carlson & George, 2004). Moreover, while many of these lies may be casual “white lies,” some are used with clear intentionality, to further an employee’s goals within the organization. Nevertheless, there has been little consideration of whether or not such deception is effective.

This paper examines the utility of deception from the standpoint of a subordinate employing it in an attempt to influence their supervisor’s opinion of them. The following sections discuss a definition of deceptive impression management (“Deceptive IM”), a study examining the effectiveness of different forms of Deceptive IM, and finally, the implications for managers.


Managing impressions

Employees work actively to influence perceptions about themselves held by their supervisor(s) (Rosenfeld, Giacalone, & Riordan, 1995). Impression management (IM) is the process through which individuals manipulate information about themselves so that others view them in the way in which they would like to be viewed (Schlenker, 1980). Deception can be defined as the communication of information to a target with the intent of creating a false understanding on the part of the target (Buller & Burgoon, 1996). Lying, a form of deception, requires the expression of an actual statement known to be untrue.

There are several different forms of IM and although the “information manipulation” described in the definition does not require deception — indeed such manipulation may be done with complete honesty — it does open the door widely for it. Such deception includes the active distortion, destruction, or omission of information that the supervisor has the right to truthfully receive from the subordinate. For example, a subordinate who has failed to complete an assigned task might work to manage the impressions of their supervisor by, (a) truthfully explaining the difficulties encountered and affirming their willingness to redouble their efforts to catch up (honesty), (b) not reporting their failure in a timely manner (deception), or (c) blaming the failure on a co-worker who was not at fault (lying).


Three types of Deceptive IM

Deceptive IM can be defined as the use of deception in the conduct of impression management (Carlson, Kacmar, & Carlson, 2005). We believe that deceptive IM differs from other deceptions in that it generally occurs within an established workplace relationship, and may consist of multiple deceptive acts that must be managed and reinforced over a significant period of time. The subordinate has both a pre-existing relationship with their supervisor as well as an expected future relationship that must be taken into consideration. As well, the planning of any deceptive act must take into account the ability of the subordinate’s peers to provide countervailing evidence, intentionally or not, to the supervisor. Finally, we specifically do not define deceptive IM as a new or separate IM tactic; rather, we believe that deception may be employed in the enactment of any existing form of IM. We suggest that there are three common types of deceptive IM agents in today’s organizations:

1.  The sycophant is insincere and does not provide genuine opinions or honest feedback to their superior, for example, enthusiastically endorsing your supervisor’s idea even when you don’t like it.

2.  The cover-up artist makes up excuses to whitewash a poor performance or explain failed projects, for example, making up an excuse when the supervisor points out shoddy work.

3.  The all-purpose liar will directly provide false information about specific facts if it is to their advantage, for example, exaggerating the amount he or she contributed to a team project.


Use of Deceptive IM

Importantly, we don’t know is how these different types of deceptive IM might be used, and even more importantly, how effective they might be in influencing important organizational outcomes.  An employee might consider using deceptive IM in a variety of difficult circumstances. Perhaps he or she is struggling in a hostile work environment or has been assigned to an abusive supervisor; perhaps he or she wants to cover gaps in knowledge, training, or experience; perhaps he or she is facing family or health problems that are negatively affecting his or her productivity; or perhaps he or she is simply trying to jump-start a stagnant career. Moreover, we believe that the use of deception in IM may be particularly easy for the subordinate to rationalize, since the goal of the deceit isn’t generally to cause direct harm and the subject of the lie is often the subordinate him or herself.

Even though lying to others about yourself may be almost as easy as lying to yourself, it is still expected that subordinates will have a difficult time pulling off deceptive IM. The rationale for the expectation is straightforward: Separately, both lying and IM are difficult to carry out successfully. Combining the two and requiring that they be conducted successfully over a significant period of time and under real-world conditions in which actual performance and contributions can be measured is, we believe, a challenging task (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998).


Current study

The purpose of this study was to gauge the effects of these three different types of deceptive IM conduct on the relationship with a supervisor, and the supervisor’s evaluation of the subordinate’s behavior.  More specifically, two key outcomes were measured: (1) leader-member exchange or “LMX” (Graen & Scandura, 1987), which is the quality of the relationship between the supervisor and the subordinate, and (2) the job performance of the subordinate as evaluated by the supervisor.

To study these deceptive IM practices in existing workplace relationships, supervisors in a division of a southern-state tax-collection agency were surveyed. Although all 65 supervisors agreed to participate and submitted surveys, only 59 could be matched to completed subordinate surveys. A total of 183 subordinates returned completed surveys usable for this study (for a response rate of 53%).


How common is it?

The first consideration was to examine the frequency of the 3 behaviours referred to above.  The most highly used form of deceptive IM was sycophancy, in that 86 percent of the respondents engaged in this behavior.  Sixty-nine percent of the respondents engaged in the practice of cover-up and 56 percent in the practice of lying.  Thus, while the respondents engaged in these behaviors at a relatively high frequency, they were more likely to engage in sycophancy than lying.


Deceptive IM and outcomes

So, is it effective? The answer is “No.” We found that for the outcome of LMX, the relationship between supervisor and subordinate, that lying was the only type of deceptive IM that played a significant role. It had a negative impact, specifically leading to the deterioration of the supervisor-subordinate relationship (-.22, p<.00).  However, when it comes to the supervisor’s evaluation of performance, covering-up played the key role. It too played a key role: The more the subordinate covered-up behavior, the less likely the supervisor was to evaluate performance highly (-.17, p<.00).  Interestingly, sycophancy, which was the most common form of deceptive IM, did not have any significant effects on the relationship with the supervisor or the supervisor’s evaluation of the performance of the subordinate.



These findings support the idea that many employees are actively engaged in three different types of deceptive impression management.  However, these are akin to three roads, none of which leads to the planned destination. Employees are most likely to engage in sycophancy by providing deceptive information and feedback to their supervisor in an attempt to flatter and improve their supervisor’s impression.  These results suggest, however, that this behavior, while common, doesn’t appear to affect either the relationship or performance evaluation of the subordinate.  Perhaps it is so commonplace as to be both expected and ineffectual.

Attempts to cover-up poor or deficient performance at work were ineffective at managing impressions.  It would appear that when people try to cover-up their mistakes using deception, it ends up negatively affecting their supervisor’s evaluation of their performance. Of course, a prerequisite of this behavior is a deficiency of such significance that the employee feels the need to cover it up. These findings may suggest that in today’s team-oriented, interconnected workplaces, covering-up all traces of one’s poor performance isn’t completely possible.

Finally, the most destructive behavior in this study was the act of lying overtly (i.e., the “bald-faced” lie). Employees who engage in such behavior damage the relationship they have with their supervisor, a relationship that affects all aspects of their work life. Of course, not every lie needs to be uncovered for this damage to occur. However, once a lie has been identified, the supervisor’s view of the subordinate’s truthfulness and trustworthiness begins to be undermined.



To the extent that our results can be generalized, once an employee begins a deceptive IM campaign, he or she will at some point begin to receive negative feedback (at least in the form of LMX and performance reviews), which may serve to feed a vicious circle by motivating even more deceptive IM. Indeed, this may be a difficult habit for an employee to break, even in the face of costly outcomes. Nevertheless, just as a gambler’s winning streak must come to an end, a liar engaged in deceptive IM will eventually be caught and face potentially harsh repercussions. Understanding a subordinate’s motivations may be a key in explaining this apparently self-destructive behavior.


From the manager’s point of view, these results may seem like a vindication of sorts. Yes, although your subordinates are trying to manipulate your impression of them by using deception, you appear not to let these activities affect you so as to the benefit of the deceiver. However, a business culture of acceptable dishonesty opens the door to a host of concerns. If your subordinates are willing to lie to you to improve your impression of them, are they also lying to each other? And to customers? Suppliers? Auditors? And what else are they willing to lie about? The potential damage unleashed by an ethically permissive workplace may far exceed the lost labor of an employee taking a short nap under his desk.



Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1252-1265.

Carlson, J. R., & George, J. F. (2004). Media Appropriateness in the Conduct and Discovery of Deceptive Communication: The Relative Influence of Richness and Synchronicity. Group Decision and Negotiation, 13(2), 191-210.

Carlson, J. R., Kacmar, K. M., & Carlson, D. S. (2005). Deceptive impression management: Does it pay? Proceedings from Southern Management Association (SMA) Meetings, Charleston, S.C.

DePaulo, B. M., Kashy, D. A., Kirkendol, S. E., Wyer, M. M., & Epstein, J. A. (1996). Lying in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 979-995.

Graen, G. B., & Scandura, T.A. (1987). Toward a psychology of dyadic organizing. In L. L. Cummings, & Staw, B.M. (Ed.), Research in organizational behavior (pp. 175-208). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Rosenfeld, P., Giacalone, R. A., & Riordan, C. A. (1995). Impression management in organizations. London: Routledge.

Schlenker, B. R. (1980). Impression management: The self-concept, social identity, and interpersonal relations. Monterey, CA: Brooks/ Cole.


About the Author

John Carlson is an Associate professor of Information Systems at the Hanmaker School of Business, Baylor University.