When is phony behavior at work something we should shrug off as a minor annoyance, and when is it something we should be concerned about?
At a time when harsher terms are often used to describe dishonest behaviors and people, the word “phony” seems rather trite, like something from another era. I’m not necessarily calling for its resurgence, but I’m wondering how it applies to today’s workplace.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes phony this way:
: not true, real, or genuine : intended to make someone think something that is not true
of a person : not honest or sincere : saying things that are meant to deceive people
More often than I’d like, terms such as narcissistic, psychopathic, and sociopathic enter my conversations about workplace bullying and related forms of severe mistreatment at work. Sadly, if the shoe fits….
“Phony,” however, has a gentler sound and feel. It may be an appropriate term to describe behaviors that are insincere, though perhaps not driven by malicious intent. Like the HR director saying with a smile that the company’s health care plan is actually better for you, despite the higher deductibles and co-pays. Or the real estate agent trying to sell you on office space she knows doesn’t quite fit your needs.
Such lighter level phony behaviors at work aren’t nearly as menacing as bullying, harassment, and mobbing. They usually don’t threaten our livelihoods or job security. Of course, underneath that quality of insincerity is an assumption that the person on the receiving end can be sold a bill of goods. If we think about it too much, we can let it push our buttons or get under our skin.
Furthermore, lest we get too judgmental, let’s acknowledge that people acting in apparently phony ways may simply be trying to acclimate to a role or work on their own stuff. Or perhaps it’s part of a required script at work, like that imposed by a retailer on its customer service workers. Maybe the term applies to something we’ve done or said, voluntarily or otherwise.
On the other hand, phony behavior can be a mask for something more pernicious. Like the boss who tearfully tells her staff that she’s doing everything she can to avoid layoffs, after already having informed HR of the people to be terminated. Or a co-worker who gives you a big smile as he shamelessly tries to flatter you into applying for a job that isn’t right for you, because he knows it would derail your career and he wants you out of the way.
So, here’s where we must make distinctions. Most of us can and should deal with the occasional snake oil salesman or superficial dishonesty. Don’t sweat the small stuff, right?!
By contrast, a workplace grounded in a culture of insincerity and dishonesty is an especially capable host of abusive behavior, and this is when our antennae should be up. In such instances, beware of workplace aggressors who dress up as mere phonies.
Homework assignment: Google “phonies at work” and you’ll come up with a lot of interesting takes on this topic!