How to Respond When a Coworker Throws You Under the Bus
We've all been there: You're sitting in a meeting, discussing a project that's not going as well as hoped, and suddenly you hear your name. "Well, that was really Olivia's responsibility," your colleague says, and all eyes turn to you. Or maybe you hear through the grapevine that your name came up when a colleague was confronted about a missed deadline. Congratulations—you've just been thrown under the bus. What should you do when a coworker makes you the scapegoat? What's the smartest way to respond?
Stay calm and don't fly off the handle
The worst thing you can do is react with emotion. You want and need to respond with a clear head. Take some deep breaths, and excuse yourself as soon as possible to calm down and assess the situation. Remember, if it's a true case of being thrown under the bus, you've been wrongly assigned blame. This is about the other person's issues, not yours, and you need to be smart in your response in order to protect your reputation.
Find support outside the workplace
When you're in conflict with a colleague, it's always smartest to vent to and seek advice from a third party. This is the time to call your significant other or best friend—someone who isn't involved and you can fully trust not to immediately run to the coworker in question. Complain as much as you need to, then do a gut check with your partner or friend to see if your take on the situation is accurate. Whatever you do, don't turn to a colleague, who might be tempted to tell your story around the water cooler.
Confront the backstabbing coworker privately
When you address the situation, ask to speak with your colleague privately. Focus on using "I" statements to explain your perspective. In other words, don't say "You threw me under the bus, which was a really crappy thing to do. It’s really unbelievable you did that.” Instead, say "When you said such-and-such was my responsibility, I felt it didn't accurately reflect the reality of the situation. Here's why…" Keep the conversation focused on the facts at hand, and don't stray into personal accusations or generalizations. If the situation becomes heated, it's OK to say you'll need to revisit again later when emotions aren't running high. (At that point, you might want to involve a supervisor.)
Prevent it from happening again
You don't need to become paranoid about being thrown under the bus again, but once a colleague shows his or her true colors, it pays to be wary. Take steps to protect yourself from future roles as the scapegoat:
- Clarify roles and responsibilities with your supervisor. Make sure you're on the same page with your supervisor so colleagues can't misstate your role.
- Avoid workplace gossip. As satisfying as it might feel in the moment, gossipy behavior erodes trust in the workplace and turns staff members against one another. It breeds the kind of environment where scapegoating becomes the norm.
- Trust your instincts. If something feels off about a colleague, it probably is. In particular, be cautious around coworkers who seem to get too friendly too fast. They might be more likely to turn on you.
- Document your interactions in case you need backup. Follow up on meetings with summary emails listing action items and responsible parties. It's hard to place blame in the wrong place if the task list is in writing.
- Model good behavior. When you're feeling the heat, it can be tempting to pass the buck to a colleague, particularly if said colleague is not the room. Resist the urge. Show that it's OK to own your mistakes. Others will follow suit.
Blaming others for your mistakes is a sign of immaturity, and if it's your colleague's modus operandi, others will take note. Rise above and be accountable when appropriate—and don't be afraid to speak up when it's not.