When to Take the Blame at Work

Illustration by Andrew Joyner

The first paycheck I earned as a writer came from a freelance job I briefly held at a small newspaper when I was still in college. I covered groundbreaking stories with such headlines as ”Deep-Fried Candy Bars: A County Fair Favorite,” “Underage Drinking Popular on Campus,” and “Local Man Makes Sculptures out of Trash.” I was young and inexperienced, and no one had ever explained the concept of copyediting to me. So when an editor told me she’d changed the term “rain boots” to “galoshes” in a story I’d written about springtime fashion trends, I didn’t check the final version before it went to print. When I saw it in the paper, I was horrified to discover the article appeared as a musing on the colorful, polka-dotted goulash—the Hungarian stew.

It was my first official error and it wasn’t even my fault. But indirectly it was. I apologized to my editor for not checking the final version; she apologized to me for making me write about stew; and our copy editor would have apologized to both of us, except the newspaper was so small it didn’t have one—which is probably how an article about the patterned rubber goulash made it into print. I’m still so embarrassed by this mix-up that I’ve never told the story to anyone until now. But I’m sharing it with you, because while writing this paragraph makes me want to hide under the covers, it’s also a good example of how to take the blame at work. I may not have known how to proof a story back then, but according to Ben Dattner, organizational psychologist and author of The Blame Game, I did the right thing when it came to office diplomacy. I apologized.

“Credit and blame are part of our self-perception,” Dattner explains. “Whether we feel properly appreciated is related to our self-esteem. Do we view ourselves as valued by our employer? Or do we feel scapegoated and wronged in our jobs?” Dattner says that usually when we’re blamed at work for a minor infraction that isn’t our fault, we should just let it go. There are two reasons why: “One, the amount of time it’ll take you to explain, ‘It wasn’t my fault, it was so-and-so’s,’ is probably way more than anyone cares to hear about it,” he says. By the time you’ve conveyed what happened, you wind up looking like a hypersensitive tattletale. Second, the problem probably is your fault—even if just a little bit. “It’s almost always the case that there’s something you could have done to prevent the issue from happening,” Dattner says. Yeah, like double-check that your article isn’t accidentally about goulash.

People hate accepting responsibility when something goes wrong. We avoid blame even when it’s justified, and we’re quick to pin it on others whenever we can. Finding out what went wrong and who caused something to happen can be undeniably important: If we know why certain public schools fail, why an airplane crashed, or where the recession originated, maybe we can make sure the problem doesn’t happen again. But remedies can be incredibly hard to find, and they’re often buried under layers and layers of corporate or bureaucratic buck-passing. In 2009, NPR’s Planet Money counted 196 separate lawsuits that were nothing more than banks suing other banks over the fact that they’d all gone broke. Sometimes it’s just easier to step up and say, “I should have done better,” even when you don’t feel the problem is your fault at all.

Lynn works at a Michigan analytics company and has a manager who routinely sacrifices her employees’ professional reputations to save her own. “I’ve had to take the blame in front of supervisors of other departments, and I’m sure she’s told a client that, too,” she says. Lynn doesn’t mind, except when it impinges upon her career. Once, when her manager tried to blame her for something in front of the top boss, Lynn says she took the boss aside and set the record straight. “That was a couple of years ago,” she says. “Now [my manager] thinks I’m awesome and would probably only blame me if she really had no one else to pin it on.”

Lynn’s pretty canny about what sort of blame she’ll accept; she takes it when it doesn’t hurt her reputation and wins her manager’s favor, but she defends herself when the accusations cross the line. Ann, who works at art auctions in Northern California, uses a different tactic: She doesn’t accept errant blame, but she doesn’t deny it either.

“Once, at one of our auctions, I was working the front desk and there were five or six Bic pens on the table,” Ann explains. “My boss walked by and went, ‘Who’s securing these pens? Someone could just walk away with one of these!’ Never mind they’re like 99¢ for a pack.” Ann had no idea why her boss cared about the pens, but she took them off the table. “Ten minutes later, he needed to write something down and went, ‘Goddammit, Ann, what the hell did you do with all of the pens?’ So I put the pens back.” She didn’t apologize, but she didn’t point out her boss’s irrationality to him, either.

Dattner says both Lynn and Ann have made smart decisions about accepting blame: “Making yourself more vulnerable in short term can make you powerful in long term.” But, he says, the type of infractions this rule applies to must be relatively minor—maybe a report isn’t ready on time, or one of the projects you’re working on came in over budget. Taking the blame never applies to illegal or unethical situations. As soon as something like that happens, the rules change. Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t cook the books or let someone pretend that you did. There’s a difference between taking one for the team and being the fall guy.

And if you work at a newspaper, you should probably learn how to spell “goulash.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.