A toxic boss can make your work life miserable and cause your mental health to suffer. Working for someone who has a hard time being upfront with you, or who straight-up lies about work-related issues big and small, can leave you either constantly on edge or completely surprised when something goes wrong, like an unexpected mass layoff.
There’s no real science to reading body language or interpreting verbal cues that show someone is lying. But there are workplace behaviors and management tactics that could indicate that your boss is withholding information or attempting to obfuscate the truth, and perhaps you should be curious and cautious about what’s going on behind the scenes.
Here are a few indicators that something is fishy with your boss:
- They use non-committal or vague language. If your boss doesn’t take responsibility for things—using the royal “we” instead of “I”—or refuses to get specific about timelines and action items, they may be evading the truth. For example, if you ask about the process for a promotion and they respond, “We’ll look into it.” Similarly, words and phrases like “probably” or “as far as I know” may indicate avoidance.
- They never communicate in writing. Hard conversations are often good to have face-to-face, but if your boss declines to make any commitments or claims via email, Slack, or any other written communication, especially when asked, they may be trying to avoid accountability for their answers.
- They give contradictory information. Bosses who say one thing to you and another to your co-worker, or who give contradictory information across teams, may be purposely misleading or simply not able to keep their obfuscation straight.
- They give irrelevant feedback. Part of your boss’s job is to give feedback to support your growth. Not all managers are good at this skill, and in most cases, it doesn’t indicate that they’re lying. But if your boss declines to get specific or offers feedback that seems to apply to someone else, they may be avoiding a hard conversation.
- They ask you not to share things with your co-workers. There are probably some scenarios in which you should keep difficult workplace news or sensitive information to yourself, but if your boss consistently asks you to keep secrets from your co-workers, they may be trying to hide something.
- They avoid meeting with teams. Bosses who refuse to meet with larger groups even when requested or necessary, and instead hold a bunch of individual meetings, may be trying to avoid difficult conversations and confrontations where there’s power in numbers.
How to deal with workplace lies
Keep in mind that none of the above is a 100% guarantee of anything. It’s possible that your boss is just a poor manager or communicator, or that their actions have everything to do with them and nothing to do with you. Or maybe this behavior is just their norm.
If it’s clear your boss is lying to you and the consequences are posssibly criminal in nature, you should get out as quickly as possible—and maybe consult a lawyer. Otherwise, there are both reactive and proactive approaches to dealing with deceit. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, author and consultant Pamela Meyer suggests starting with a cost/benefit analysis. Is confronting the lie with your boss, their boss, or HR worth the potential consequences?
If you do want to respond, first consider your boss’s motivation for the lie, then approach them with curiosity rather than accusations. It may be that their intentions were good even if their tactics were not, and you can get clarity while giving them the benefit of the doubt.
To head off patterns of deceit from the get-go, Meyer recommends building strong workplace relationships that involve paying attention to detail and following up. If you notice patterns of deceit in communication or behavior, document them.