Jerome came into his counseling session angry. The position at work that he worked so hard to obtain was now in jeopardy. He couldn’t understand how this happened so quickly. One day he seemed to be everyone’s favorite new employee and the next day he was an outcast. But as he began to recount his story, a few things became clear.
His new boss was so charming in the beginning that he wondered why others had warned him he was difficult to please. Yet a new person emerged after Jerome made a slight oversight on a report. Now his boss was demanding, condescending, and overbearing. In an effort to regain his favor, Jerome agreed to take responsibility for a blunder his boss made during a meeting. However, this did not seem to fix anything, rather his boss became more belligerent than ever.
Added to that, his assistant frequently came in late, smelled of alcohol after lunch, left early, and had excuses for everything that went wrong. After asking around about her, Jerome discovered that several people believed that she had a drinking problem as she was known to come into work drunk on a few occasions. One day she was caught by upper management coming in two hours late to work. She lied and said Jerome had given her permission. In an effort to try to be nice to his assistant, Jerome begrudgingly agreed to lie. But things only got worse.
According to ancient Jewish tradition, a goat was released into the wilderness after taking on the sins of others so the people could remain in the community. The term scapegoat stems from the concept of one person (or animal) absorbing the mistakes of others. The scapegoat has not done anything wrong rather they are the fall person for those who have done wrong. After explaining the term, Jerome realized he was his boss and assistant’s scapegoat. Now he needed to know how to get out of his situation.
- Understand what a scapegoat is. The purpose of a scapegoat is to pass responsibility onto someone else. Usually, this person is unsuspecting at first and agrees because they are trying to get along with others. This technique of passing the buck is very common with narcissists, sociopaths, and addicts. Narcissists can’t allow their ego to be tarnished by an error. Sociopaths do it for the sport of it. And addicts do it because accepting fault in one area of their life means being accountable in another.
- Don’t accept liability. Looking back on the two events, Jerome had an opportunity in both events, to be honest with his level of responsibility. Instead, he chose to take on things that were not his fault. This did not improve his relationships as the two individuals just saw Jerome as a pushover and someone they can continue to take advantage of in the future. Had he refused to be their scapegoat, a level of respect would be achieved instead of contempt.
- Review past experience. His feelings of frustration over being a scapegoat ran deep. Upon further examination, Jerome realized that his brother used to get him in trouble for his offenses all the time. Their parents, trying to be impartial, told the kids to “work it out.” His brother’s idea of this was to threaten harm to Jerome if he didn’t agree to take the blame. As a demonstration of his determination, his brother even lit his toy trucks on fire. His willingness at work to make excuses for his boss and assistant was subconsciously rooted in the fear his brother instilled.
- Stop being the scapegoat. Once Jerome separated out trauma from past events, he was able to set new boundaries. He began by issuing a written warning with his assistant about her late arrivals and notified Human Resources of her suspicious behavior. Then he researched narcissistic bosses and found other ways to feed his ego. This pacified his boss and neutralized his assistant. Despite a couple of attempts to thwart his boundaries, Jerome remained firm.
- Expose the abuser. Jerome knew that eventually, he would need to expose the scapegoating technique to prevent other employees from damage. But doing this too soon would mean jeopardizing his job, so he waited and watched. When he saw another employee taking the fall for yet another blunder by their boss, Jerome spoke to that person and advised them not to take on the blame. This frustrated their boss, but by then, Jerome had established a good enough relationship with Human Resources that his job was secured. Once Human Resources caught on, it was only a matter of time before his boss was removed.
Narcissists, sociopaths, and addicts are most effective when they are able to utilize a scapegoat to escape responsibility. Jerome successfully navigated around such behavior by knowing the warning signs and setting very firm boundaries. The only thing worse than being a scapegoat once is being one a second and third time.