5 Times It’s Ok to Tell a White Lie in the Office

Lying is wrong. It hurts others, it damages your reputation, it can be difficult to stop once you start, and it’s not great for your health. But white lies are different, right? Well, certain kinds actually can be. According to a study from Aalto University, white lies may benefit communities by keeping social bonds strong. Like any community, an office can survive—and occasionally even profit from—a little untruth here and there.

white lie at work

For the record, we’re defining a “white lie” as a harmless falsehood told to spare someone’s feelings or promote a positive outcome for others. Self-serving lies, even small ones, do not apply for reasons we’ll get into later. Until then, here are five times it would be okay to tell a white lie at the office—and five completely truthful (and not hurtful) alternatives.

1.  "That Wasn’t A Boneheaded Thing To Say"

It was a boneheaded thing to say. But unless the screwup was monumentally insensitive or has found its way online, chances are, few people will remember or care come tomorrow. Your coworker will probably give herself a harder time than anyone else. Why twist the knife? Reassure her that it was no big deal, and help her regain her confidence.

Truthful alternative: “It was a boneheaded thing to say. But tomorrow someone else will say a boneheaded thing that will replace yours and the day after that, yet another person will wear the bonehead crown. It will be ok.”

2.  "You Did A Good Job Here. Just A Few Small Errors to Address"

The work isn’t the best, and there are more than a few errors. However, framing the feedback this way will give your coworker the self-confidence he needs to approach the task with a buoyant, can-do attitude, while still ensuring the work gets done. Remember, positive reinforcement teaches better than negative reinforcement, and the act of correcting those “few errors” will promote improved performance on later assignments.

Of course, if the work is nowhere near acceptable, it’s not the time for a white lie. Be judicious, but always considerate of your coworker’s feelings.

Truthful alternative: “Thank you for your work on this! I found some errors while I was checking it over. I’ve made a few notes—can you take a look and revise? And please let me know if you have any questions.”

3.  "I Don’t Remember If She Was Tasked With Writing The Report, But We’ll Get It Fixed"

You do remember, and she should have written the report. Maybe your coworker was busy or behind or maybe it slipped her mind. Whatever the reason, there’s no need to throw her under the bus now. This white lie ensures no single person shoulders the blame, while giving your team a chance to come together to write a quality report.

Again, be judicious. Don’t deliver a white lie if your coworker habitually neglects her work. It will only increase your workload, build up resentment, and make the inevitable confrontation all the more confrontational.

Truthful alternative: “Let me ask the team about this—we’ll get it fixed right away.”

4.  "The Lutefisk Was Good"

It tasted like fermented fish Jell-O and smelled worse, but your coworker worked hard to prepare the dish for the office potluck. You can handle trying it, and you can also spare his feelings. This is especially true for a dish like lutefisk, which is probably a cultural or familial tradition. Wanting to share one’s culture is a lovely sentiment, and you should appreciate that, even if it’s not for you.

Truthful alternative: “I’ve never tasted anything like this. How do you make it? Is it usually prepared for certain kinds of special occasions?”

5. " Sorry, I Can’t Make It Tonight. I Have Plans"

We aren’t sure binge-watching Arrested Development for the eighth time can be classified as “plans.” Your coworkers were nice enough to invite you to the office social event, and if you don’t feel like going because you had a rough day or they invited someone you can’t deal with tonight, that’s fine. This white lie will spare everyone’s feelings and secure you an invitation for a future social evening.

Truthful alternative: You know, plans are what you say they are. Sprawling on the sofa in your most ancient loungewear watching hours of comfort programming definitely qualifies as plans, and we support you.  

As we’ve mentioned, a white lie should only be used to promote happiness for others and never be self-serving. Even small self-serving lies have been shown to desensitize us to the negative emotions associated with falsehoods, making it easier to lie in the future. Lying leads to escalating dishonesty and harmful physical repercussions such as stress, anxiety, and depression. And white lies—even those coming from a place of empathy—should be employed sparingly. But used judiciously, they can be valuable. They can show compassion, spare the feelings of our coworkers, and help everyone work together more successfully and positively.


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