insight magazine

Ethics Engaged

Breaking Trust in Business

Lying and unethical communication threatens our reputations as trusted business advisors.
Elizabeth Pittelkow, CPA Controller, Litéra Microsystems


Is lying bad? Seems like a self-explanatory question; of course lying is bad. Lying hurts people, relationships, and ourselves. Yet, lying still happens in life and business.

We lie because we feel it protects ourselves or others. We may not want to admit that we forgot to do something, so we might say we did it and then do it later. We may not want to hurt someone’s feelings, so we may say their business idea is good even if it is not. We may exaggerate our expertise to be more interesting or win clients. In extreme circumstances, we may justify lying to prevent further evil from occurring or to protect personal or national security.

Many people do not consider themselves liars, but how often do people give half-truths or deflect questions for convenience? Have you ever answered a question with another question to change the nature of the discussion? Or, have you responded with an answer that only partially addresses the question? For example, if you are asked if a report is done, you could respond with, “the report numbers look good, and gross profit is better than budget this month.” The person asking the question could assume the report is done, even though you answered in a way that did not confirm that it was done. Then, this situation can happen: “I thought you said the report was done.” “No, I said the numbers look good, which is true, but I did not say it was done.” An indicator that you are not hitting the core of truth is when you say or think a phrase like “which is true.”

Lying can easily escalate into larger falsehoods, especially to cover up earlier lies. Some lies in business can even lead to fraudulent behaviors. Even worse is when we become the liars because we put our reputations as the most trusted business advisors at risk.

Lying in business means the people on the receiving end cannot make informed decisions. For example, if lying transpires within a set of financial statements, shareholders are using misinformation to view the company and manage their investments.

Additionally, when other people like colleagues or business partners see you lie, they may think it is okay to lie to you or others. If we lied to a colleague, perhaps saying they are good at a skill when they are not, then they may try to use that skill to no avail. If that person is then fired for doing something incorrectly, then other employees may not want to admit guilt for their own errors, even if there is no malicious intent. This type of environment breeds fear and creates an incentive to be untruthful.

We also make strong first impressions of people within seconds of seeing them, which makes reflecting your personal ethics and being able to recognize those of others ever more important.

In fact, aggressive gestures or darting eye movements could indicate uneasiness or reflect lying and other ingenuine intentions. How can you tell if someone is acting unethically or lying to you? How are you perceived by others to be trustworthy or ethical? Observing body language can help. Expert Lillian Glass shares these potential signs of lying in her book, “The Body Language of Liars:”

1. Changing head posture quickly
2. Varying breathing
3. Standing rigidly
4. Repeating words
5. Touching or covering the mouth
6. Covering vulnerable body parts like the throat or stomach
7. Pointing while speaking
8. Providing too much information
9. Speaking with difficulty
10. Staring at you without much blinking


Oculesics, the study of eye movement, also shows that certain eye behaviors may be associated with lying. Mark Bouton, a former FBI agent and author of “How to Spot Lies like the FBI: ProtectYour Money, Heart, and Sanity Using Proven Tips,” offers the following observations on how liars act:

1. People’s eyes go from left to right quickly when they are uncomfortable

2. People who are stressed about lying may rapidly blink five or six times

3. People may do a long blink (for more than a second) when lying

4. Right-handed people tend to look up and to the right when lying about what they saw (opposite for left-handed people)

5. Right-handed people tend to look directly to the right when they are lying about what they heard (opposite for left-handed people)

6. Right-handed people tend to look down and to the right when they are lying about smells or sensations (opposite for left-handed people)

When people are acting unethically, they often will look like a nervous public speaker—fidgety, uncomfortable, and with accelerated speech. Other micro-expressions in body language, facial patterns, and eye movements could also be red flags.

It is important to note that not one behavior or a set of behaviors are telltale signs of lying or unethical behavior. It is best to look for these movements after you have had at least a few encounters with someone to know what their baseline behaviors are. For example, providing too many words or blinking rapidly may be a part of their normal conversation habits.

In any event, we as trusted business advisors must be committed to ensuring and enforcing trust in business. We have a professional responsibility to maintain a commitment to being truthful and ethical in communication.

The National Communication Association defines ethical communication as communication that “enhances human worth and dignity by fostering truthfulness, fairness, responsibility, personal integrity, and respect for self and others.”

When we are ethical in our communication with one another, our society operates better and with more cohesiveness. We need trust to be able to effectively conduct business and live our lives.

Trust the people you work with and care for in your life. Try listening more and speaking less. Create an environment where it is okay for people to be truthful with one another—an environment of garnering mutual respect, seeking understanding, and embracing honesty, even when it is difficult.