If you or someone else is being scapegoated at work, you can take the high road and come out on top.
Maria signs onto Zoom for her department’s weekly staff meeting. She is caught up on all her projects, and she’s feeling confident about her performance and her value to the organization. Suddenly, out of nowhere, her boss says that one of their clients is upset and accuses Maria of being responsible. He says she’s fallen behind on deadlines and didn’t return key emails. None of this is true. Marie is shocked. She realizes she is being scapegoated, but she doesn’t know how to respond.
If this sounds familiar, either because it’s happened to you or a colleague, you know that scapegoating can hurt morale and engagement and contribute to turnover. Addressing it promptly and appropriately is key to a healthy workplace.
The scapegoat generally hasn’t done anything wrong but is targeted as the fall person for someone else who has made a mistake or created a problem. Managers or colleagues also may target someone for blame when they themselves have been criticized or attacked by a higher up, a client, or other stakeholder. This technique of passing the buck is common behavior for narcissists, bullies, or others can just can’t accept fault or blame. At the same time, some people may scapegoat someone else for fear of losing their position or status because of a mistake or error.
Why you? You may be a target because you’re a team player, easy-going, and/or viewed as someone is unlikely to assert yourself or speak out.
In the midst of a scapegoating situation, there are a few steps you can take:
- Only accept what you are truly responsible for. Present facts calmly.
- Refrain from arguing or getting emotional.
- Take notes for follow-up later on.
- Observe others’ reaction. This will give you a sense of who might be allies or sources of support.
Moving forward, there are some steps you can take to avoid being a scapegoat in the future:
- Stop negative self-talk. If you come across as being overly humble or self-deprecating, you are more likely to be targeted as a scapegoat. Take pride in your accomplishments and accept compliments graciously.
- Build your self-worth by pursuing activities and goals that make you feel confident about yourself, your capabilities, and what you contribute to your teams.
- Don’t accept liability. Take responsibility for your errors and mistakes, but also stand up for yourself when you are falsely accused or unfairly criticized. Keep documentation of what you’re doing, when, and the feedback you get from others.
- Report issues to HR. If you’ve been scapegoated, particularly if your job or employment is at risk, you may want to contact HR. Bring all your evidence and identify potential witnesses. At the least, it may be possible to arrange a transfer to another office or department.
- Seek counseling if you need it. If you continue to find yourself being scapegoated or past situations continue to cause you anxiety and stress, a mental health professional might be able to help you avoid being a victim, boost your self-esteem, and help identify effective coping mechanisms.
While you may be able to expose the person’s bad behavior and prove yourself undeserving of the criticism or accusations, there is no guarantee the person won’t do it again, especially if he or she has a history of scapegoating.
If your career or reputation is threatened or damaged because of scapegoating, you may want to seek legal advice. Don’t waste time trying to prove your innocent or convince the scapegoater or others that you’re right. Instead, learn from the experience and concentrate on getting back to work, hopefully in a healthier work environment.