TV & Movies

Pulled a Brian Williams? How to Repair the Career Damage

Never fibbed to your boss? Liar! A communications coach gives advice on what to do when you’re caught lying at work

Brian Williams Taking Himself Off Air Temporarily Brian Williams Taking Himself Off Air Temporarily

NBC News anchor Brian Williams, who falsely claimed he had been in a helicopter that was hit by a grenade in Iraq (Photo: ZUMAPRESS/Keystone Press)

There’s no point in pretending you’re above telling the occasional fib at work. The truth is that everyone does it. “We work with a bunch of liars, and we’re a bunch of liars ourselves,” says Carol Kinsey Goman, a communications coach and leadership expert based in Berkeley, California.

We lie to get jobs, and we lie to keep them. “We lie to get out of accepting responsibility, or to make ourselves look better; to protect others or to keep our jobs…We lie on exit interviews because we don’t want to burn bridges.”

Lies, to some extent, are what keep workplaces (not to mention families and society as a whole) functional. (Ahem, do you really want your boss to know how unhappy you are?) But there are lies that keep workplaces humming along, and there are those that destroy them from the inside out.

Deceit that conceals criminal acts like fraud or theft is clearly bad news. But Goman cites another kind of lying as being just as problematic. She calls these “destructive lies” or fabrications that “destroy trust” between you and your colleagues.

NBC news anchor Brian Williams’ deceit about being in a helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq in 2003 is a popular example of a destructive lie (turns out he was never in that helicopter). But so too is spreading malicious gossip about a co-worker, lying about your credentials, willfully throwing a colleague under the bus to save your own skin, or falsifying a report to cover a mistake.

“Once you damage your reputation and destroy trust in the workplace you are going to take a long time to get it back,” says Goman. But it is retrievable. The process of redemption starts with a sincere, rigorously honest apology. The worst thing you can do is to deny the lie with more lying, she says.

The second-worst thing you can do is to minimize your crime, or attempt to explain it away—that’s not an apology, that’s a dodge. Williams took the latter route to a great extent, Goman feels, and his reputation suffered even more as a result of his awkward, bumbling apology. (Williams claimed he misremembered rather than fabricated the story.) “That’s what liars do, they try to minimize [their lies].”

People who are truly contrite don’t, though; they get seriously truthful and introspective. They ’fess up to what occasioned you telling that whopper in the first place. If you’re Brian Williams, for example, that means copping to an outsized ego and flagrant disrespect for your public role as truth-teller.

A sincere apology should also include a course of proposed action for rectifying the situation, says Goman. If you’ve utterly destroyed your standing at work then you’d be wise to resign immediately. The next step: reclaim your credibility by taking on a good-works project, which could mean volunteering your professional expertise for a charity or an individual or cause.

“You need to do something that’s redeeming.”