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How to take -- or not take -- the blame at work

You’ve been dealing with it since you were a kid: accusing your brother for the drink you spilled, taking the blame for the vase your best friend broke. It’s one thing to do that in grade school, but have you become a player or pawn in the office blame game?

If you work in a place where people play the blame game like it’s professional dodgeball, morale is bound to be low. No one takes responsibility for mistakes, but a great deal of effort goes into accusing others for errors. In short, there’s plenty of covering up and not enough owning up.

If you’re the one always pointing the finger, colleagues will lose their trust in you, an obvious blow to your reputation. But if you’re always taking the blame, you may be seen as someone who can’t do anything right. What’s a person to do?

It doesn’t come down to one or the other, the tattletale or the pushover. It’s unprofessional to consistently shift blame from yourself, yet keeping the peace doesn’t mean you have to be the sacrificial lamb. Here are five ways you can navigate the blame game in your workplace:

1. Preempt mistakes

When you’re given a new assignment, make sure you completely understand your role and responsibilities. Ask plenty of questions if anything is unclear. That way, you’ll be less likely to make a mistake -- or have to take the blame if the error is outside your duties. For added accountability, give your manager regular updates and request feedback.

2. Go on, admit it

Do the time if you’ve committed the crime. Of course you feel bad about botching something up, but you’re not only doing the right thing by owning up to your mistakes; you’ll also end up gaining respect from your manager and co-workers.

3. Don’t always take the blame

One in three senior managers interviewed for a recent OfficeTeam survey admitted to taking the blame for something they didn’t do. Of those, more than one-third claimed it was because they felt somewhat responsible, while 28 percent wanted to avoid getting others in trouble. For the rest, it was simply not worth the time to argue or explain. No matter the reason, if you fall on the sword often enough, your co-workers may begin to take advantage of you, which puts your job on the line.

4. Point to facts, not people

If someone’s made a mistake, don’t throw your colleague under the bus. Instead, stick to the facts about what went wrong and be as honest -- but diplomatic -- as possible. For example, if you’re not 100 percent sure who made the mistake, say so. Don’t get wrapped up in scenarios and alternate theories. Maintain that big-picture focus of why things went south and what steps you and your team can take to avoid it in the future.

5. Don’t assume the worst

If managers want to question you, and you feel they want you to take the blame, take a deep breath. They may simply be seeking solutions instead of playing the heavy in the blame game. Good leaders want to find the cause of mishaps and to see what steps they should take to ensure that the same mistakes don’t happen again. If you immediately become defensive, you may end up making the situation worse.

Ultimately, it’s best not to play the blame game at all. In workplace interactions, the winners are those who take the blame when it’s their fault, do not point fingers at others and are discrete and factual no matter what games others around them are playing.

Robert Half is the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm with a global network of more than 400 staffing and consulting locations worldwide. For more information about our professional services, visit roberthalf.com. For additional career advice, read our blog at roberthalf.com/blog or follow us on social media.

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