The Jewish Ethicist: Blame Game
Can I defend myself against workplace blame-shifting?
Q. In our workplace, shifting blame is commonplace. How can I defend myself without being unfair to others?
A. While to err is human, no one wants to get left holding the bag -- especially if it may damage chances for a raise or a promotion. In many workplaces, the result is that much productive energy is spent trying to shift blame to co-workers or competing departments, instead of trying to rectify the error.
Before we enter the topic of shifting blame, we should recall that even blaming the person who is truly responsible is a kind of negative speech and is only permitted under the conditions we have mentioned in numerous columns: namely, that fingering the wrongdoer is the only way to achieve some necessary benefit, and that the information is transmitted accurately and will not cause the wrongdoer excessive or unjustified harm.
One reason that even valid accusations are discouraged in Jewish tradition is that once such accusations are permitted and given credence, it opens the door for improper accusations and a general atmosphere of competition and suspicion -- exactly the atmosphere that you describe! More often that not, the best policy is to assume that the person at fault was doing his or her best, and that no reaction is called for. This response creates an atmosphere of trust and mutual support.
Naming a wrongdoer is not always improper. Sometimes a supervisor must know how a certain individual performs. Even if a person was doing his or her best, the employer may need to know that their best falls short of expectations.
Still, we must be certain to fulfill all the conditions: that we have definite knowledge of the situation we are relating, and that the information will be used in a constructive way. Finally, we must be certain that the reaction will not be excessive. For example, you may decide that it is reasonable if the management reacts to a minor error by providing the employee with needed guidance or by withholding a bonus, but excessive and unjustified if the employee is dismissed or shamed.
It goes without saying that it is completely unethical to shift blame to someone else. The main ethical question remaining is how far a person can go in defending himself.
Rav Yisrael Meir HaCohen of Radin, author of the authoritative book on slander, "Chafetz Chaim", writes that it is permissible for a person to deny responsibility for wrongdoing even if by doing so he implicates someone else. For example, if the only two individuals who could have done something are you and a co-worker, and you are accused, you may state that you are not responsible, even though you are implicitly attributing responsibility to your co-worker. This is so even in cases where you are not permitted to explicitly state who is behind the act.
If the problem was just due to bad luck and not to negligence or incompetence, the most ethical course of action is to accept the blame passively and not to implicate your co-worker who is after all not at fault.
The best solution to workplace incrimination is to create ethical policies in the first place. If management:
- Always adopts a measured and proportional response to problems;
- Gives people the benefit of the reasonable doubt;
- Always gives an accused person the opportunity to give his side of the story.
Then workers will be much more inclined to admit to wrongdoing, much less inclined to shift blame, and the workplace will be a more pleasant and efficient place. In short, the best policy is "Fix the problem, not the blame".
Chafetz Chaim I 10:17
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