Getting thrown under the bus at work can be complicated. When this happens, maybe a coworker has blamed you for something that you didn’t do or didn’t mean to do. It is possible to find yourself being thrown under the bus by coworkers and even your boss. Let’s take a look at what it means to be thrown under the bus and what to expect (and do!) if it happens to you.
What Does it Mean to be Thrown Under the Bus at Work?
Have you ever found yourself facing unfair criticism at work? It’s possible you were being thrown under the bus. Perhaps you’ve been blamed for something that didn’t involve you as a way for someone else to escape consequences – you’ve become an office scapegoat and have been thrown under the bus.
Imagine it this way – the bus is the vehicle to success; you and your coworkers are the passengers/team members. If you get thrown under the bus, someone has decided to sacrifice your way to success by removing you from the team; by criticizing you or placing blame on you for something you didn’t do.
Being thrown under the bus in the office can be rough. In a place meant to be professional and fair, facing unfairness at work can lead to unproductivity and even make it impossible for work to be done.
When Can it Happen?
If you’ve never been thrown under the bus at work, you might be wondering what it looks like. Being thrown under the bus could happen in many ways, but here are a few common examples of situations to look out for.
It’s possible to get thrown under the bus by anyone in the office, including your superiors. There are many situations where your boss or supervisor could throw you under the bus. For example, maybe your boss needs someone to take the blame for turning in an assignment late to give to their boss. They might use you as a scapegoat to get out of accepting blame for their own mistake. No matter the reason, it can be hard to lose support from such an important person. Keep reading for some tips on how to handle a situation like this.
Another possibility is becoming the scapegoat for a coworker. Maybe a mistake was found within a project and a coworker gets called in for it. It’s possible that in a moment of panic, they will defend themselves by placing blame on you.
How to Handle Being Thrown Under the Bus
If you find yourself the victim of unearned criticism or thrown under the bus for any reason, don’t panic. It might feel like a first instinct to defend yourself and argue back against any unfounded accusations and blame. Here are a few methods to handling these types of situations in the moment.
Step away from the blame
Avoid playing the blame game. Don’t argue or accept any unfair blame in the heat of the moment. Playing the blame game will lead to confusion and frustration and is ultimately unproductive. If possible, excuse yourself and take a moment at your desk or somewhere quiet to calm down.
Assess the situation
What happened? Taking a moment to assess the situation as a whole may help you understand why or how you are being blamed. Get the facts straight and understand the situation from all sides. You may even come to see that you are actually at fault, even if just partly. This can help you speed up the resolution process by quickly figuring out how you are involved, if at all.
Write down what you know about the event
Record details like who said what and how they (and you) reacted. This way, if the situation comes up in a performance review, you’ll have the facts and won’t have to strain too hard to remember what happened. Additionally, if the situation is very serious, you’ll have a statement to hand in to HR.
Find a solution
One of the quickest ways to defuse a situation is to provide a possible solution. If you find yourself being blamed for something, even if you are not at fault, it might help to propose a way to solve the issue at hand. Talk to all involved and explain how you feel. This could be a good time to, if you are being unfairly blamed, explain your side of the situation and propose a way to solve the issue.
Confronting Your Accuser
You may be wondering whether you should confront the person who threw you under the bus. As mentioned above, this confrontation could happen while finding a solution, but not always.
If you know who has thrown you under the bus, it might help you find closure to have a constructive discussion with them. During the conversation, consider asking them why they used you as a scapegoat. Maybe they didn’t realize the severity of their action. This could help them to be more cautious in the future.
Depending on the exact situation, you may choose to confront the person before or after the situation is resolved. If you know the person and want to help find a solution, consider speaking to them right away so you can be part of the resolution process.
You might not even find out who threw you under the bus until you are facing any consequences for their blame. If this is so, you will not be able to face them during the resolution process. For example, you are part of a team at work and one member, let’s call him Jim, is in charge of sending in a final report on a due date. A week later you receive word from a supervisor stating that you are being removed from the project for not participating. You find out that Jim told the supervisor that the report was late because he was waiting for you to finish your part. The best option may be to talk with your supervisor and get everything sorted out before confronting Jim.
It’s important to remain calm when confronting the person who threw you under the bus. Use a calm voice to avoid sounding accusatory. They are less likely to listen if they feel like you are attacking them.
In other situations, you may be thrown under the buss repeatedly by one person. Consider why this keeps happening. Are you repeatedly making mistakes, or is this person targeting you? If you feel you are being targeted unfairly and you know that direct confrontation would worsen the situation, it might be time to talk to your boss or even to HR.
When to Involve HR
If your situation is serious and you are facing unfair treatment or abuse, do not hesitate to visit your office’s human resources department.
In an article for CBSNews, HR Professional Suzanne Lucas wrote about when and when not to visit Human Resources. She recommends visiting HR if there is any “illegal conduct with respect to how you are being treated in the workplace.” If you are being discriminated against, she recommends going to HR and filing a complaint.
It is also important before going to HR to do your part to work out the issue. Make sure that you’re communicating with your coworkers and boss first. Find out if you can work out the problem amongst yourselves. Was there any miscommunication or misunderstanding that lead to them throwing you under the bus? Is it a problem that you can solve one-on-one? If so, skip the trip to HR.
If the issue is personal, Lucas says:
“Sometimes when we know about a problem, we can help you navigate, coach you and your boss, and get everyone through it successfully. On the other hand, we're not therapists. Many companies have employee assistance programs (EAPs) that can specifically help with things like this. Contacting them is confidential, so you're not in danger of being exposed. Start with the EAP.”
How to Avoid Throwing Others Under the Bus
If you’ve been thrown under the bus by someone accidentally, chances are you might find yourself throwing someone else under the bus too. Here are a few ways you can avoid it.
If you make a mistake, own up to it
Don’t try to blame others for your own mistake. If you are honest, you are likely to avoid any serious repercussions.
In-office gossip is a quick way to throw someone under the bus accidentally. This can happen if you are close friends with those you work with. Be careful to not gossip about others and control how you react to gossip.
Don’t make assumptions
This can lead to throwing someone under the bus even if you don’t mean to. In passing someone might ask you what happened with a project or an assignment. In passing you might say something along the lines of, “I don’t know, but maybe Jim didn’t send it in.” You’ve just thrown Jim under the bus in passing. Unless you know something for sure, don’t assume anything about anyone else in the office.
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