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This workplace question recently made it on the StackExchange hot questions list: Severance contract requires a lie. Is this enforceable?

Now, consider the following:

  • In most cultures, lying is seen as immoral or, at least, ethically questionable.
  • Contracts that require a party to do something illegal are usually not enforceable.
  • However, lying is not illegal in general, but only in very specific circumstances (fraud, for example).

This made me wonder: Are the any jurisdictions where the requirement to lie makes a contract unenforcable? Is there any country where the "right to not have to lie" is seen as such a fundamental human right that you can't be compelled by a contract to do otherwise?

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  • Questions of the sort "is there any jurisdiction/country that [...]" oftentimes are unanswerable insofar as they require sufficient knowledge about all jurisdictions. Nobody is that much knowledgeable. Could you modify the question to something that does not require "exhaustive" knowledge? Regardless, the contract as described in underlying post from Workplace SE does not really amount to lying. The proposed contract in that scenario would mostly stipulate the characteristics of the termination of employment. Aug 31, 2022 at 10:35
  • @IñakiViggers unless the pattern is simple to prove because there are actually many cases of such laws.
    – Trish
    Aug 31, 2022 at 10:51
  • @IñakiViggers: Thanks, I see your point and I will remember it for my next question here. Let's hope that the answer is "yes" (and, thus, can be answered with a simple example from a single country), because I don't see a good way to modify it.
    – Heinzi
    Aug 31, 2022 at 10:54
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    @IñakiViggers Questions of the form "Is there any country where X is true?" are easily answered when the answer is "yes" and the person responding knows of st least one example. The problem comes where the responder suspects tht the answer is "no" but cannot easily prove that. Aug 31, 2022 at 16:38
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    @AlexandreAubrey: I'm not convinced: I'd claim that NDAs are usually fine with you just staying silent or refusing to answer a question, they don't compel you to actively lie.
    – Heinzi
    Aug 31, 2022 at 20:20

2 Answers 2

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In the linked question the requirement that is allegedly a lie is in a severance agreement which states that:

The contract has terms that require me to tell anyone who asks that I was not, in fact, laid off, but instead that I voluntarily resigned from the company.

I would not call that a lie. It is, instead, a mutual agreed change in the reason for leaving employment, that by virtue of an agreement for severance being executed, becomes true. The termination of employment may have initially started out as a layoff, but once you agree to leave in exchange for a severance payment instead, it becomes a voluntary resignation.

The colloquial meaning of the word "lie" includes lots of things (like broken promises) which are not considered to be lies in the legal sense, or even if a more strict sense of the word "lie."

Similarly, a contract hiring you to be an actor and in the course of an acting performance, to say things that are not factually true to an audience that knows you are acting, is also not a lie.

The set of things that aren't legally fraud (which would cause a contractual requirement to be void as contrary to public policy), but are "lies" in a strict sense yet aren't illegal, is pretty narrow.

It might encompass a contract as a P.R. agency for a political campaign that requires that agency to produce materials consistent with a candidate's message. But there aren't all that many other examples I can think of.

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    "The set of things that aren't legally fraud...but are 'lies' in a strict sense yet aren't illegal, is pretty narrow" -- how is it narrow? It the vast majority of situations, it is legal to lie outright (i.e., knowingly make a false statement with the intent that the audience takes it as true). Politicians, of course, do it all the time. Ordinary people also lie outright to friends and family all the time to make themselves look good, or to spare (or sometimes to hurt) someone's feelings. I think OP's question is whether a contract requiring a lie of this commonplace type is valid.
    – nanoman
    Sep 1, 2022 at 8:57
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    Just a heads up: In the linked question, it has since been clarified that the OP was in fact not asked to resign, but specifically to lie about their termination. Sep 1, 2022 at 10:11
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    @RutherRendommeleigh "not asked to resign, but specifically to lie about their termination." The fact that the employee characterizes it as a request to lie does not mean his portrayal of the settlement accurate. The severance package offered to him is largely equivalent to a typical scenario of early retirement. Sep 1, 2022 at 14:29
  • @IñakiViggers I think early retirement programs typically have better benefits than layoffs, because they want to encourage them. Something seems non-kosher if the employee's normal layoff benefits are threatened if they don't claim to have resigned.
    – Barmar
    Sep 1, 2022 at 14:43
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    @Barmar "I think early retirement programs typically have better benefits than layoffs". The author of that post did not provide details of his severance package. It would be pointless and off-topic for us to speculate on whether his package was better than early retirement programs. "non-kosher if the employee's normal layoff benefits are threatened if they don't claim to have resigned." There is no information for a comparison of his normal layoff benefits (if any) and the severance package at issue. Sep 1, 2022 at 15:10
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In the specific case mentioned, there is no requirement to lie since the employee resigned in exchange for some compensation. So that is not a good example. Any contract that required you to violate the law is unenforceable, so if a contract entails perjury or lying to government authorities, that contract would be unenforceable (on that point). But you could still be required to affirmatively lie to others, i.e. make a false assertion and not just fail to tell the "whole truth".

In Islamic law, actual lying is a "mortal sin". A contract that requires lying is forbidden in Islam. It is therefore possible that there is a legal jurisdiction that follows this religious principle – perhaps Iran, Afghanistan or Saudia Arabia. Most Muslim-majority nations have fairly secular legal systems, but the three that I suggested tend to highly-localized non-secular law enforcement. It is reasonably possible that such a contract would be illegal in one of those countries, but research on such cases is extremely difficult. It is also likely that such a holding would only be w.r.t. a Muslim defendant.

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    Just a heads up: In the linked question, it has since been clarified that the OP was in fact not asked to resign, but specifically to lie about their termination. Sep 1, 2022 at 10:11

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