The workplace phony: Annoyance vs. threat

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.

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Homework assignment: Google “phonies at work” and you’ll come up with a lot of interesting takes on this topic!

3 responses

  1. My measure of malice is based on how much the behavior interferes with or threatens a person’s job. For example, anyone involved in mobbing would be considered a serious threat.

  2. David, thanks for the great homework assignment—lots of good stuff.

    One way to answer your question whether phoniness is just an annoyance vs. a threat is to ask yourself how it feels to be lied to the workplace.

    In response to your Webster’s definition of phony—“not true, real, or genuine”—I see no need to equivocate: what’s not true is false and the definition of “ lie” is—a false statement, a falsehood, to speak falsely, as with intent to deceive. And the behavior of someone speaking falsely is lying, and they are considered a liar.

    The examples you give of phoniness sound to me like people lying, and even though Wikipedia defines about 34 varieties of lying, it’s still fundamentally lying.

    So, I’m thinking I’m probably not alone in my reactions to being lied to in the workplace.

    I distinctly recall one time being lied to by a management attorney totally out of the blue, for no reason, with no provocation. I felt like I was being “shined on”, was not being treated with any dignity or respect, and like I was just so much chopped liver. Here was someone with so little respect for me….I was disappointed, frustrated, and angry. I asked our personnel person for a sit-down with the liar to find out why, but she didn’t follow through and I, with surplus powerlessness, didn’t press it.

    So, this attorney maybe was just being phony about caring about employees, but to me he was obviously lying and showing no concern for my discomfort and frustration and anger at being told a lie—no respect for my well-being. And isn’t that what being sociopathic is? And yes, being on the receiving end of lies from management can be very harmful, scary, threatening, and totally discombobulating.

    We have to expect and demand to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace, including not being lied to.

  3. When I hear the word “phony” I think of a shallow person and not really a pathological liar/psychopath. I think of phony people as not being sincere and lacking empathy for others. Yes they can lie and manipulate and lack depth. These type of phony people are everywhere in the work force including positions of management or even doctors and nurses. Looking back on my work history and my extensive experience of working in many different fields with many different kinds of people I came to realize that even though I was quite intuitive about people, people can really fool you and people can be extremely cruel. You can work and socialize with a person for years and still not really know them. Unfortunately when I left the workforce (retired) I came to the realization that no one, absolutely no one in the workforce could be trusted. It was a shocking and disappointing realization. My advice now to younger workers is: A job is a job and not a place to make friends. Always keep it professional. It’s a place to make your living. Don’t for one minute expect it to be a warm fuzzy place, don’t let your guard down and don’t be fooled. Work is a place where personal boundaries must be set and you must stick to your boundaries. If anyone bully’s you, seek help immediately and if you don’t get “swift” attention in getting the problem resolved, either find a new job or hire an attorney to help you get the problem resolved if you think your job is worth staying in. Don’t fight the system alone and don’t let it fester because even an extremely strong person can be damaged by a bully quite quickly. If your boss is the bully I would find a new job. Remember most bully’s have no desire to resolve conflict, they enjoy inflicting pain. Don’t count on HR supporting you, they support management. I don’t see a bully as a phony, I see them as having some extremely serious mental health issues.

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