Omission lying is a subtle form of deception that can show up in many different contexts in life. See our full article on the topic for a more general overview.
In this article though, we want to specifically apply the general subject of omission lying to the workplace, since it is a particular context in which it will show up very often, especially in companies with more toxic cultures who tend not to promote the best quality people into positions of power.
Lets begin with a quick definition:
Omission lying in the workplace can be defined as any kind of feedback which omits certain key bits of information which would lead anyone receiving this information to perceive a person or situation differently, and react differently than if they had the full information. This can include leaving out key facts, details and context of events in a way that deceives and misleads others.
Omission lying is a covert and sneaky way of either avoiding consequences or undermining others in the workplace, and is harder to detect than other forms of troublemaking.
However, by implementing more thorough documentation of conversations and events and better flow of information through a company hierarchy, it is possible to detect and deal with this form of troublemaking.
Let’s look at how omission lying can play out in the workplace in more detail.
Examples of Omission Lying in the Workplace
Omission lying can happen in different contexts and scenarios at work. Again, the distinction here from overt lying is that in omission lying, someone is deceiving not by what they say, but by what they don’t say, what they leave out.
Here are some things that can be left out of “feedback” which can effectively deceive others:
1. Details of Events/Conversations – Let’s first start with the more self-serving ways that omission lying can be used – not so much to undermine and attack others, but to get oneself off the hook and avoid consequences for something by leaving out certain crucial facts about events or conversations in a way that avoids painting themselves in a negative light.
This can obviously take many different forms; here are just a couple of examples.
- If two workers report their side of an argument, obviously there is a common tendency for each side to report only what suits them, and leave out aspects that are unflattering to them. This is the standard cliche of “the truth being somewhere in the middle” when you have two opposing sides to a story.
- Leaving out wrongdoing or violations of procedure which led to a situation.
- Leaving out certain things which were said in conversations in a way which misleads the person being reported to, and doesn’t paint the full picture.
Let’s look at a few specific examples of this form of omission lying:
Example #1 – A mid level manager asks a lower level manager what he did yesterday. The lower level manager responds “Ah, it was just a normal day, started off with some paperwork, did a few shop visits. Then the day was what it was, I got back to base around 6, then that was that”. What he really means is that he did some shop visits for a few hours, then spent the rest of the day claiming for unpaid work hours, getting his hair cut, going to the laundrette and drinking with his buddies, before clocking back in at base at 6 to make sure he was paid. For obvious reasons, he leaves this out of what he says.
Example #2 – A shop worker has to ring his area manager because some money was stolen out of his till because he carelessly left it unattended. “My till is $100 out”, he tells his AM “I checked it just now and it was down”. He leaves out the fact that it was down because he left it unattended, breaking standard procedure.
Whilst these are two slightly caricatured examples, you can hopefully see the general idea – the worker is deceiving others by only telling them what they wan’t them to know, and not all the relevant facts.
2. Positive Traits & Skills -A troublemaker may only talk about the negative traits or shortcomings of a colleague, while leaving out any positive traits or skills, or good things that the person contributes towards a company or team. Giving selectively negative feedback about a person in a way which paints them in a negative light.
A more subtle version of this is for someone to throw in “breadcrumbs” of positive feedback about their target to superiors and colleagues – just enough to make it seem like they are being balanced and “fair” – but the overall narrative they are seeking to spread about someone always leans unfairly in the general direction of negative. They are launching a smear campaign on the person.
3. Previous Experience – Someone may leave out the fact that a person has previous experience in a company or line of work when speaking to colleagues or higher management. This is a subtle way of undermining the target, and also of setting up conflict, since onlookers who may not realize the person has previous experience may think the person is acting “over-confident” and “above their station”, when they are not, because they have experience and credibility that the troublemaker has not communicated to others.
This one is subtle but quite common. It is also used to smear the target as a “bad influence”, since without seeing the proper context of their previous experience, where they may have a solid track record of excellent performance and good working relationships in better environments, upper management may lack proper context. They will fail to see that this so called “trouble”, is not originating from the person being smeared, but from the person doing the smearing, who is omitting their positive past track record in an attempt to paint a false, isolated picture of them which lacks context.
NB – This factor is a huge one to watch out for. This tactic of omitting my previous experience in a line of work in order to undermine my credibility with colleagues has been used on me at least twice. This caused misunderstandings and conflict as area managers did not have all the relevant information when assessing certain situations. They then had to later apologize because they were making judgments based on incomplete information they had been receiving from manipulative and untrustworthy lower level managers/supervisors.
4. Proper Context of Scenarios – This is another huge one that toxic manipulators like to use. They will often speak of a person’s (justifiably) animated or angry reaction to some kind of provocation, insult or slight, without mentioning the prior provocation that led to this reaction. They will try to portray the person as being “difficult”, “moody”, “disruptive”, “overly sensitive”, or some other smear.
This forms part of the more general smear tactic, where workplace troublemakers seek to provoke reactions from their target, then sneak around gossiping about those reactions to others, painting the person out to be “going crazy”, or “losing it”.
Other relevant things can also be left out of feedback to paint a misleading picture, such as:
- Personal/health issues
- Family problems
- Financial difficulties
- Past bullying
In doing this they are hoping to so badly undermine the reputation of someone, that if a situation does blow up, they’ll be blamed by upper management and colleagues, regardless of whether it was actually their fault, such has their image been smeared covertly by the troublemaker’s malicious gossip.
This is why it is so important to make sure the right people are put in charge of departments/shops, who can be trusted to give fair and balanced feedback of others. Allowing toxic, personality disordered people to get into positions of power gives them the chance to use smear tactics to ostracize and push out those they don’t like or feel threatened by.
Thoroughly documenting conversations and events can avoid so many of the problems which are caused by omission lying
Dealing With Omission Lying in the Workplace
It is all very well to describe how omission lying can play out in the workplace, but let’s also offer up some suggestions on how you can actually handle this problem when it shows up in companies.
Here are some ideas on how to help prevent and deal with this problem at work.
1. Documentation – Encourage thorough documentation by your workplace of all events and conversations where they suspect manipulation and deception is taking place. Get them to document full details of events, discussions, arguments and so on, so there is some kind of recorded evidence to confront troublemakers with.
2. Take Minutes – Require that minutes be taken of all meetings, either across the board or with workers who you know have a tendency to be manipulative and dishonest. Or you can leave the option open for workers to demand minutes be taken of meetings if they wish. It is perfectly reasonable to request this, either out of caution or if they suspect manipulation is taking place, so leave this option open to your workforce.
3. Write Omission Lying Into Conduct Policies – It may be a good idea to combine the above two points with also writing omission lying specifically into your workplace conduct/disciplinary policies, to allow action to more easily be taken against manipulative workers who are caught engaging in it.
If your workplace conduct/disciplinary policy does not have a section on lying and deception, then it is a good idea to add one. If it does have a section on this, then it is a good idea to amend it to capture more covert forms of deception.
Here is an example of how you could write the policy:
Dishonesty and Lying – all forms of dishonesty and deception. For clarity we want to also offer subdefinitions of different forms of dishonesty to emphasize that all of these behaviors are unacceptable and punishable by the company’s disciplinary policy:
- Lying – straightforward lying to either colleagues or managers, saying things which are not true.
- Lying when confronted – lying when asked a direct question eg. “did you do/say X?” or “did Y happen?”. Giving false statements or information when asked such questions.
- Lying and deception by omission – lying and misleading not only by what is said but also by what is NOT said. The withholding of pertinent facts regarding situations and people which unnecessarily causes conflicts, misunderstandings or otherwise negatively impacts the company. Also comes under the umbrella of so called “half truths“, where only some, but not all of the relevant information is revealed in a way which misleads.
See our conversation starter piece on a conduct policy to protect against workplace psychopaths for some more ideas on how to write conduct/rules in a way that more precisely defines and pins down covert troublemaking tactics.
4. Declarations of Full Disclosure – In companies where you keep seeing this happening, then you may want to take this seriously enough that you end any conversations, both formal and informal, with middle and lower level managers by making sure they verbally confirm that they have communicated to you all the relevant facts and context of a person or scenario that allows a fair evaluation to be made.
The statement can be something like:
“Can you confirm you have communicated to me all the relevant facts regarding this person/situation/scenario that conveys the full, unbiased context? Have you left out any material facts that would alter my perception if I knew them? Have you disclosed everything you need to in this discussion?”
Make the person verbally confirm this and sign in writing as well if you like.
This may sound like “going over the top”, but where you have toxic managers who keep using this tactic, you need to implement some kind of formal process and documented trail of evidence that a) makes manipulators think twice before they omit information to deceive others; and b) allows you to more easily escalate disciplinary process against someone who is lying by omission, if you have made them sign off in verbal/written form that they haven’t left out any important facts in conversations, yet they still do.
5. Ensure Proper Communication & Dispersal of Information – Put processes in place to ensure relevant information is shared and dispersed, and not held in then hands of only one person. Do not leave it to lower level managers you do not completely trust to provide all the required information, since this just leaves the door open for more manipulative managers to omit certain facts in their “feedback” to paint those they don’t like in a negative light.
6. Quality of People Principle – Aim to promote only good quality people into managerial and supervisory positions, who have strong character traits as well as job skill attributes. Sounds obvious, but many companies have turned job interviews and promotion processes into pure 100% competency tests, focusing only on how well a person appears to do a job, and not on other factors like a person’s character, integrity and honesty.
Go too far in this direction and you’ll leave the door open for toxic workers to get into positions of power and influence, who then lead fellow workers and management in a certain direction using lying and other tactics to smear others. If you have toxic managers, your workplace culture will become toxic, which doesn’t benefit the company long term.
How Psychopaths Ruin Companies From Within
Omission lying is just one of many methods that workplace sociopaths and narcissists will use to undermine and drive out anyone they see as a threat.
See also our article on screening for workplace psychopaths for some criteria to distinguish genuine high performers from parasitic troublemakers.
7. Avoid Dramatic & Manipulative Personality Types – It is also a very good idea to read up on the so called Cluster B Personality Disorders (sociopathy, narcissism, borderline, histrionic) to understand how to better spot the these provocative, dramatic and reaction seeking personality types.
These are the individuals most damaging to a company long term, and the most likely to use glib charm and subtle manipulation tactics like omission lying to advance their own position and drive out good people they see as a threat.
See also our article on the ways psychopaths manipulate and cause trouble in the workplace for some more common ways these toxic personality types can cause problems in companies.