What to do when your boss throws you under the bus
FORTUNE — Dear Annie: Your column on how to recover from a failure recommended accepting the responsibility for what’s gone wrong. I report to a boss who never does that. Instead, and especially when he’s talking to higher-ups in the company, he hogs all the credit for our successes, while pointing the finger at me or at one of my eight teammates for things that haven’t gone so well.
Nobody’s perfect, but there have been times when problems arose because of mistakes or oversights on this manager’s part, and I resent taking the fall. I also worry about what this is doing to my reputation here. Next time our boss blames one of us for something he did (or didn’t do), how should we respond? Is there a diplomatic way to go over his head and set the record straight, or would that be a political suicide mission? — Just Jason
Dear J.J.: You wouldn’t believe how many people have written to me recently to complain about that situation — or, then again, maybe you would. “In too many workplaces, when something goes wrong, people waste far more time and energy assigning blame for it than trying to find a solution,” observes Ben Dattner, adding that the recession exacerbated the problem, so that finger-pointing is now more widespread than ever. “Just look at Washington. The government is shut down, and Congress is still bickering over whose fault it is.”
An organizational psychologist and consultant, Dattner wrote a book called The Blame Game: How the Hidden Rules of Credit and Blame Determine Our Success or Failure. You don’t mention whether you’ve ever talked with your boss about his habit of throwing you under the bus but, if not, it’s time to start. “Confronting him is risky, but saying nothing and letting this go on is risky too,” Dattner notes.
The key is in how you approach the conversation. Dattner suggests asking lots of questions about exactly why your boss believes a mistake was someone else’s fault. Pinning him down on the details — in a calm, non-accusatory way, of course — will put him on notice that you’re tired of being a scapegoat and you want to prevent it in the future. You may also learn something useful about how he perceives your role, and his own.
“Try to get to the bottom of what’s really going on here,” Dattner advises. Is it possible, for instance, that who was accountable for which parts of a given project wasn’t clear at the outset, so your boss genuinely believes you or a teammate dropped the ball? “The biggest mistake I’ve seen people make is reacting to a situation, usually angrily, without really understanding it first.”
Robert Hosking, executive director of staffing company OfficeTeam, agrees. “You need to know exactly how the blame for a problem got assigned to you,” he says. “Then steer the discussion toward how to prevent the same thing from happening again.”
One way to head off future finger-pointing, Hosking says, is to start documenting everything you and your teammates do. “Often everyone is so busy that things get overlooked or slip through the cracks,” he says. “So begin each project with a written outline of who is responsible for what, and make sure everyone, including the boss, has a copy and signs off on it.” Detailed accountability might even prevent mistakes from happening in the first place.
As you already suspect, going over your boss’s head to complain is so likely to backfire that it has to be a last resort. “If you’re being unfairly accused of something that could seriously damage your career, do take it upstairs, and think about involving someone from human resources as well,” Hosking says. “But warn your boss first, so he’s not blindsided. Invite him to sit in on the meeting. Frame it as a chance to clear the air.”
Small consolation though it might be, Hosking points out that the people your boss reports to are probably already aware that something’s amiss. “If this manager has shown a pattern over time of never accepting responsibility for problems, higher-ups are going to notice that,” he says. “Don’t assume they’re oblivious. Eventually, someone will call him on it.”
In the meantime, Ben Dattner has one additional suggestion for you: Concentrate on building a strong network. “A boss who denies you credit and unfairly blames you may change [his] tune when he realizes that others, both inside and outside the organization, recognize your talent,” he writes in The Blame Game.
A robust network of fans can make you more likely to be offered other jobs, inside and outside the company, Dattner notes, and “even the most credit-hogging and blame-dumping boss will not want to be viewed as out of step with others in the organization, or to be blamed for being the reason why a talented, hard-to-replace employee left.”
Once it’s in your boss’s own best interest to stop scapegoating you, in other words, he probably will.
Talkback: Have you ever worked for someone who blamed you, or colleagues, for his or her own shortcomings? How did you handle it? Leave a comment below.