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In his latest book, David Shulman, associate professor of anthropology and sociology, argues that deception is a vital aspect of the workplace and actually helps maintain worker autonomy and harmony, and an efficient workflow.

From Hire to Liar: The Role of Deception in the Workplace, released in December by Cornell University Press, explores how everyday lies in the workplace impact ethics, the administration of work, and productivity.

Update: An interview with Shulman appears in this week’s edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education in the Short Subjects section. An excerpt from the tongue-in-cheek Q & A article, “Pants on Fire,” follows:

In his new book, [Shulman] …doesn’t focus on big lies that result in CEOs’ being frog-marched out of their offices in handcuffs. Instead he writes about the small untruths everyone tells to get by, and how we convince ourselves that we’re good people anyway.

We asked the professor to answer a few questions, as honestly as he could:

Q. So your e-mail message said you were “delighted” to speak with me. Was that sincere, or were you merely greasing the skids of social interaction?

A. No, that was actually genuine. If I had wanted to grease the skids, I could have used other adjectives. For a writer of a book on deception, that was a startling moment of honesty.

Q. Are there virtues of deception?

A. There are. I don’t mean virtues in the ethical sense, but in the sense of usefulness. One of the functions of deception is that it can help you do your job a little better. For instance, a faculty member might be much nicer to a student who they think is asking a dumb question. It’s better to be polite than to let your jaw drop to the ground.

Q. How can I, Tom Bartlett, use deception to my advantage at “The Chronicle of Higher Education”?

A. I don’t know anything about your bosses or co-workers. If I was going to guess, you may deal with people who are pretentious or people who say they are going to be there when they’re not. [Editor’s note: We at The Chronicle consider punctual attendance a sine qua non of journalism.] So you might encounter lies in that kind of way. There may be a need to massage certain situations. You might have to be polite when you hear ridiculous things that come out of an academic’s mouth. Like now.

Q. In the book, you don’t write about the lies professors tell. Why is that? Does it hit a little too close to home?

A. I wouldn’t want to foul the nest. At this point in my life, the organization I’ve spent the most time at is a college, so I’m real close to that. There’s plenty of it here, just like any other workplace.

Q. You write about the “systems of subterranean education” people get on the job. Tell me about that.

A. People understand who’s full of crap and who isn’t in an office situation over time. People are good about being able to pick up on that. But there are restraints about calling others out on it. People know when the boss is falling down on the job or when a co-worker isn’t doing their work. This is the kind of secret information that people have to harbor.

Q. It’s been a genuine pleasure talking to you. Truly fascinating. It’s been very, very enjoyable. Really.

A. So he lied.

The book takes a look at workers from over thirty different workplace environments. One job that is covered in depth is that of private detectives, who must lie and act deceptively to conduct investigations successfully.

Shulman believes that workplace cultures contain pressures that can socialize individuals into using deception as a tool for performing everyday tasks. To make his point, he focuses not on extreme cases but rather on less obvious forms of deception, such as pretending to show deference, exaggerated resumes, shirking one’s work, crafting misleading accounting reports, making false claims to customers and coworkers, collusion against disliked colleagues, covering up business transgressions, and goofing off while pretending to work.

“One of my favorite examples is of two guys who sit next to each other in office cubicles and talk to each other all day while pretending to be on business calls,” says Shulman.

“Everyone lies on the job, from the secretary on up to the highest executive. Lying and deceiving is a part of how business actually gets done. And that’s not a bad thing,” says Shulman. “It’s, of course, a problem when pushed to an extreme and workers lie to commit crimes, but for the most part, lying on the job is absolutely necessary to get your work done. Everyone knows it, most are afraid to admit it. Unless, of course, you think the best thing to do is to tell your annoying boss or client what you really think, or to comply completely with every cumbersome rule or unnecessary piece of paperwork that slows down your performance.”

From Hire to Liar has already received a number of positive mentions and reviews in major publications. It has been featured in the Miami Herald, the Chicago Tribune, The Invisible Hand Podcast (episode 46), the Honolulu Advertiser, and the Financial Times in London.

Shulman is the author of numerous scholarly articles, co-author of Talking Sociology (2003), and co-editor of The Informal Professionalization Process of Graduate Students, which is presently under contract. He was also appointed editor of the Work and Occupations Section of Sociology Compass (Blackwell Publishing), and editor of AMICI (The American Sociological Association Sociology of Law Section Newsletter).

He has received numerous awards, fellowships, and grants, including a Marquis Distinguished Teaching Award, a MacArthur Summer Research Fellowship, funding from the Harvey Kapnick Fund, and a shared grant from the London Business School’s Center for Marketing. Lafayette has given Shulman a junior faculty research leave, a service learning fellowship, a course enhancement stipend, and funding for his mini-conference on experiential education.

He has mentored more than 30 students in honors and independent study research projects, including anthropology and sociologygraduates Michelle Railsback ’05,Brett Harvey ‘04, andOlivia Tusinski ’04, and he has sponsored eleven students who have presented research at the Eastern Sociological Society and American Sociological Association annual meetings. He also includes his research in his classes, such as the First-Year Seminar he taught last spring on the role deception plays in various parts of society.

Shulman earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University.

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