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What to do when you’re blamed for something that isn’t your fault

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  • Writer's picturePeter Harris

Not too long ago I got blamed for something in a professional capacity that wasn’t my fault. It was pretty annoying. I sat down and I wrote an email defending myself and pointing out where others were at fault. It made me look like a petty child. I deleted it and wrote another email explaining why things had happened the way they had, stopping short of putting the blame on anyone else. It made me look whiny. I deleted that one too. I wondered what to do next.

I asked some people for advice and here is the best of what they said.

1. Calm the heck down and think for a minute.

“Take a breath. Are you sure you’re being blamed? Have you understood correctly? If so, are you sure they’re not correct in placing this on you, and that it’s absolutely not your fault? Or, should you be accepting at least partial responsibility?”

In my case, there were definitely a few things I could have done differently, but for the most part, I was being unfairly thrown under the bus for what was essentially a perfect storm of screw-ups by an entire team of people.

2. Do nothing.

“Don’t do anything for the first few hours or day. Whatever you do, do not send that email you just wrote!”

It’s hard because our first instinct is to defend ourselves. But in doing so, are you throwing the blame on someone else – even by proxy? Like if it wasn’t your fault it has to have been theirs? And, if so, how is that going to look? What is the relationship between these other people? In my situation, I worked remotely and the rest of this team worked together and was pretty tight-knit. My defending myself would have looked like I was blaming one of them (which I would have been), and even if I was right, it wouldn’t have gone over well. This might have caused resentment against me, which I didn’t want.

3. Take responsibility but not blame.

“Accept responsibility for improving things, not accountability for mistakes. If your job is to make sure problems like this don’t recur, express that in everything you communicate on the subject.”

This is the best advice I got. I did not apologize, nor did I defend myself. I simply said, “I will do my best to ensure this doesn’t happen again.” I actually didn’t say anything else. If the person with whom I was communicating chose to read through the lines, they might have understood “but it’s out of my hands and if your side messes up again there’s nothing I can do about that.” But they probably didn’t, and that’s OK.

4. Cover your butt.

“Work harder to demonstrate that you are doing everything you need to do. You might want to call attention to the steps you’re taking to make sure things run as they should.”

Afterward, I made sure to send all updates to my touchpoint person, flag what was being done, and CC involved parties. Even on minutiae. I wasn’t going to give anyone the opportunity to blame me again.

It worked. I didn’t get to be right and prove someone else wrong. But the incident blew over and I took steps to ensure that it didn’t happen again, and if it did, it would be clear that I was not the one to blame.

I’ve heard other arguments on this subject. Someone else told me to defend myself, “If you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t, you might as well do it.” And there’s something to be said for this. But I believe in the power of saying less rather than more, as long as the few words that you use are carefully chosen.

I’ll leave it at that.

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