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our new admin crashed the company car and lied about it — Ask a Manager

October 12, 2022

A reader writes:

I’m sending this question on behalf of my husband, who owns a small business. He had a new admin manager/personal assistant, Pam, start about a month ago. So far she has been excellent — on the ball, great communicator, well organized, and liked by everyone in the company. She comes with lots of experience and is pretty late career, is paid very well, and is going to be part of the management team once she’s fully on board. Pam will also be handling a lot of the HR, email, and both company and some personal accounts, so she has to be trusted implicitly.

Anyway, a couple of days ago Pam was driving a company car and came back with a dent and some yellow paint on the back of it. She told my husband she had it parked at a large store picking up some supplies and came out to it damaged like that. She was very shaken and said she didn’t want to drive it and have responsibility for it ever again. At the time, he took the story at face value, made a joke about errant school buses, reassured her, and moved on.

However, since then, she’s told the story to others, and several people questioned the incident when talking to the general manager (along the lines of “do you actually believe that story,” not “I wanted to talk to you because I think Pam is lying”). The GM then thought about it some more, drove out to the store and found a scraped up yellow pole that looked like it’s been backed into with paint matching the company’s car on it at the level of the damage.

Husband is now at a loss for what to do. (He actually came home today and immediately asked, “What would Ask a Manager say about an employee potentially lying?”) He needs to take some action on this tomorrow or at least this week, but assuming the obvious fact-finding goes nowhere, how does he move forward? How does he talk to her about it without being accusatory while making it possible for her to come clean? If it does turn out she lied, does he have to fire her given how key trustworthiness is to her position? Or does he just believe her implicitly and let it go given that the evidence so far is not exactly overwhelming? He would definitely do that for a better known quantity, but she’s been there only four weeks. If so, how does he move on and trust her again and how does he shut down the rumors clearly going around?

I wrote back and asked, “Do you know what made people start doubting her story initially? It doesn’t sound terribly suspicious as written here, so I’m wondering what made so many people skeptical about it!”  When I received the answer to that, it also included an update!

Long story short, they did have tapes and she definitely crashed it herself. In terms of what made people think that, he asked and the GM said it was just spidey senses going off – something about the way she was telling it didn’t ring true. Husband says he probably missed it because he was so occupied with consoling her at the moment.

So now the question is what to do. Right now he’s leaning towards not saying anything for now, giving her the weekend, and seeing if she comes clean when she’s back at work. It’s understandable that someone would panic in the moment, but once she has had time to process, he doesn’t want to keep her in her role if she will persist with the lie, especially since it’s so early into her tenure. Does that seem too harsh? If they do keep her, how do they avoid sending the message that integrity is not important to the rest of the team?

Oh noooo. He should talk with her first and hear what she says, but unless there’s something truly revelatory in that conversation (like, I don’t know, she was on a new medication that made her lose time and memory), he probably does need to fire her.

People do indeed panic in the moment and say things they shouldn’t. But lying about damaging company property — specifically to avoid acknowledging that she was responsible — is a big deal. And she really committed to the lie — telling loads of people, letting colleagues try to comfort her, etc. She’s also had time to come clean and she hasn’t. It’s especially frustrating because what she actually did — backing into a pole — isn’t a big deal! But lying about it turns it into one.

Maybe if Pam were a long-term employee it might be possible to try to salvage this — if she were someone who had worked there a long time with a track record of integrity and this was clearly a one-time, out-of-character mistake. Even then, that would be hard to pull off.  But Pam has only been there a month; that’s not enough time to judge whether this was one bad decision that will never happen again or whether it’s typical of how she operates. And especially in the sort of job where trust is essential — she’ll be handling HR! — seeing such a significant display of deliberate, calculated untrustworthiness just a few weeks in has got to be prohibitive. (And it was calculated — she had the whole drive back to the office to decide to lie instead of telling the truth. She didn’t just blurt out something weird in the shock of the moment.) What’s going to happen the next time Pam makes a work mistake (and she will because she is human)? Will her instinct be to try to cover it up? You’ve got to be able to trust that you’re getting the straight scoop from her, and unfortunately now you can’t.

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