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with Sharie Stines, Psy.D.

Creating Scapegoats in the Workplace

Rules for workplace scapegoating:

Scapegoating often exists in a workplace environment with an unhealthy culture. The culture is usually established by leadership, and if leadership doesn’t put an end to scapegoating then they are most likely allowing it and even encouraging it. Most of these types of work environments are led by people who promote this type of dysfunction.

Wherever people go, they create systems. And many times, they create very toxic systems – ones that replicate a dysfunctional family and tend to be cult-like. Rules in dysfunctional workplaces, where scapegoating is frequent, include the following:

  • Make a case against someone.
  • Create an atmosphere of seriousness and urgency regarding this person.
  • Keep secrets. Be careful about who knows what.
  • Create rigid rules
  • Gossip.
  • Triangulate.
  • Exclude the scapegoat from developing close alliances within “the group.” This is a type of ostracizing.
  • Over-react to every little thing the target does and act as if it is an “unforgivable sin,” worthy of grave consequences. Act outraged whenever the target takes a supposed false step.
  • Filter out the good about the target and magnify the bad.
  • Use only selective listening when dealing with this person.

There is usually a leader of the pack who sets the scapegoating in motion. This leader has power – it is usually a supervisor of some sort, or a close ally to a supervisor. This person creates a narrative, with an air of “watch out for so and so,” leaving the feelings of, “this is very concerning and can’t be tolerated.” There is a sense of self-righteous indignation and outrage directed toward the victim.

Other people are willing to go along with it for a few reasons:

  1. They want to be part of the “in-crowd.”
  2. They want to please the leader; akin to being the teacher’s pet.
  3. They like feeling superior and special by being in a position to judge someone else.
  4. They are glad they aren’t being the target; it’s a relief.

I’m sure there’s other satisfying benefits from targeting a scapegoat, but the above four are usually at play in this type of system.

Why are certain people targeted?

The person being scapegoated usually doesn’t care about those things listed above – at least the first three. They usually don’t care about being popular or being part of an in-crowd. They are probably satisfied with just being friends with anyone. They probably aren’t interested in being best friends with the leader. They don’t want to judge others, but see everyone on an equal playing field. And last but not least, they are never going to be interested in hurting another person by ganging up on them and scapegoating anyone else.

The leader usually picks on someone very independent; usually the type of person who “beats to their own drum beat,” and is very much oblivious to being a rule-follower, and tends to be guileless in nature. Dysfunctional leaders with a need to have power are inclined to absolutely hate these people. The reason is because controllers often hate those they cannot control.

A scapegoat tends to think of him or herself as an equal to the leader, and usually just assumes the leader feels or believes the same. Wrong. A supervisor in need of power and control will take great strides to ensure this “unworthy subject” is put in his/her place.

Dysfunctional leaders often have huge egos to massage. Victims of workplace scapegoating are frequently unwilling to massage anyone’s ego; and, honestly, are usually oblivious to the need for catering to someone in that manner.

In the beginning of the targeting process an original case will be made against the target. It will probably be fabricated out of thin air. The case will be enlarged and magnified to the point of being made into an “impeachable” offense.

The victim will be caught completely off guard. He/she will be shocked and confused. “What?!? I’m being accused of what?!?!  That doesn’t make any sense!!!  Who did this?. Why?”

The entire experience for the scapegoat is befuddling.  The chosen scapegoat will often leave the workplace, either because of being fired, or forced to resign, with a complete sense of confusion over the entire ordeal. This is mainly because the reasons for the scapegoating have nothing to do with reality, but are merely a form of abuse.

At the end of the day, a scapegoated workplace employee is a victim of abuse; psychological abuse; and oftentimes financial abuse, because if you lose your form of income you usually suffer financially. The psychological abuse results in feelings of devastation, betrayal, confusion, and outrage. It affects the person’s sense of personal worth and self-esteem.

What to do if you are a victim of workplace scapegoating:

  • Never abandon yourself. Just because others treat you poorly, it is never okay to treat yourself that way. No matter what happens, always make sure you treat yourself well.
  • Set personal boundaries. Don’t allow scapegoaters to steal your joy. Ignore gossip, don’t retaliate, and walk away from anything negative.
  • Keep Communication to a minimum. The more you say, the more there is to use against you. Just keep a low profile and keep conversations light and business related. Don’t talk about anything personal. Think in terms of the job and keep all communication focused on how to do a good job.
  • Always take the “high road.” That is, don’t let other people’s dysfunction affect your good character. Keep yourself above the fray and don’t get dragged in to immature competitions.
  • Look for another job. If you are in a system like this that allows scapegoating and employee bullying to take place, then my best piece of advice is to find another job. Get out of there. Life is too short to subject yourself to any form of abuse for any extended period of time. If you can’t leave in the short term, at least start to develop an exit strategy.


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Creating Scapegoats in the Workplace

Sharie Stines, Psy.D

Sharie Stines, Psy.D. is a recovery expert specializing in personality disorders, complex trauma and helping people overcome damage caused to their lives by addictions, abuse, trauma and dysfunctional relationships. Sharie is a counselor at LIfeline Counseling & Education Inc., in Southern California ( Lifeline Counseling is a non-profit organization 501(c)(3) corporation. Sharie is also an abusive relationship recovery coach -


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APA Reference
Stines, S. (2020). Creating Scapegoats in the Workplace. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from