Skip to content

When Should You Tell an Email Lie?

I was teaching a business writing course, when an attendee I'll call Lucy showed me an email she had sent to a vendor. In the message, Lucy explained that she had not replied sooner because her company's computer system had been down. Her message was clear and concise, and I complimented Lucy on her efficiency.

Her reply astounded me. She told me something like this: "I always blame the IT department when I'm late getting back to someone."

What Lucy had written was a lie. The computer system was fine. She simply had not gotten around to replying sooner.

Lying in email is a huge risk:

  • It threatens people's trust. What if Lucy's readers learn she has lied to them? What if a coworker comes across one of her fabricated excuses? Trust will evaporate.
  • It threatens work relationships. What if IT learns about Lucy's frequent misplaced blame?
  • It threatens jobs. Email is forever, which means a lie lingers and may suddenly appear on the front page or on everyone's desktop.
  • It diminishes self-respect. Lucy cannot pride herself on her truthfulness.
  • It can make us lazy. Rather than find a solution to her email or work overload, Lucy takes the easy way out and blames another department.

When should you tell a lie in email? I say never.

What do you think? Are there situations when a lie is preferable to the truth?

Tact and kindness are not lying. We all know the right response when a spouse, partner, or coworker asks, "Do I look fat in these pants?" I'm wondering about a lie like Lucy's. Couldn't she just write, "I apologize for the delay in replying to your email"?

As always, I welcome your views.

Syntax Training 

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

13 comments on “When Should You Tell an Email Lie?”

  • Full disclosure: I’m in IT.

    I agree with all five of Lynn’s points about Lucy’s lie. Let me add two more:

    1.) Deferring blame to another department doesn’t help the company. Instead of thinking that Lucy is flaky, the vendor now thinks her company’s IT department is flaky. Who wants to do business with a company with a flaky IT department? Will financial transactions be secure? Will confidential email be compromised?

    2.) People see right through excuses. If Lucy always blames IT, I’d say the chances are good that she’ll use this excuse again with the same vendor. Fool me once…

    Great topic, Lynn!

  • I agree. Someone who always blames it on the IT department is going to be “outed” sooner or later.

    Can you imagine a client asking the President of the company if he/she has considered upgrading computers since the computers are always down?

    As a client, I’d wonder what else Lucy lies about.

  • telling a lie at any time is never ok. at an organisation a lie is used quite often which i think is really irritating. it shows lack of commitment and it also shows no regard for another individual.

  • I agree that a lie is never acceptable.

    Here’s something else to think about: apologies. I get some kind of “sorry this is so late” comment in e-mail replies all the time. Sometimes, the replies ARE late, but more often, the replies were simply not immediate. I don’t expect immediate replies most of the time (I specify in the e-mail if I do), so these apologists end up looking bad or flaky for no reason.

    Certainly, apologize if you make a mistake, blow a deadline or flake out, but don’t apologize as a matter of routine.

  • It’s funny what people find important and others couldn’t care less. Being honest is one of the most important things to me as a worker and a lay person. It frustrates me to know how much lying goes on at work and it’s taken me years to know how to deal with the lying that goes on. I know you’ll ask how I do that so I will try to prepare an answer that may help others, but in the meantime I also want to tell you why I think they do it and would love to know what you think as well. I think most people lie because they have been doing it for so long that they 1) don’t really realize how much they are lying or what a negative impact it can have on their work, and 2) don’t get penalized for it. It also seems that more people are NOT lying and they assume that most other are like them; they are perhaps too trusting.

  • Crystal, I agree with you. I believe people who lie do not think about it and may not recognize they are lying, since it so natural. As a result, they don’t consider the possible negative impact.

    I also agree that most people do not lie.

    Thanks for continuing the discussion.


Comments are closed.