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What to say when you get blamed for things that aren’t your fault

There are classy ways to deflect blame when you are held responsible for someone else’s screw-up.

What to say when you get blamed for things that aren’t your fault
[Photo: JackF/iStock]

Your boss makes a seemingly innocent stop at your desk, but it’s not long before he’s pointing out something that recently went wrong–and he’s placing all of the blame on you.

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You’re nodding along and pretending to absorb everything he’s telling you. But, all the while, there’s only one response that’s echoing throughout your brain: It’s not my fault!

Perhaps it was actually your colleague that dropped the ball and now you’re the one shouldering the burden. Or, maybe there’s a legitimate reason that you did things that way and your manager just isn’t in the loop on your decision-making process.

Either way, you’re itching to put an end to the finger-pointing and let your boss know that you don’t deserve the brunt of this blame game–and, ideally, you’d like to do so in a way that doesn’t sound like you’re absolving yourself of all accountability.

Sound impossible? It’s not. These three different phrases can help.

1. “I wasn’t aware of that”

When to use it: In situations in which you were the one who actually made the mistake, but you only did so because you didn’t have all of the information you needed.

Why it works: You don’t know what you don’t know, and sometimes you need to act with limited information at work.

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Of course, your best bet is always to ask clarifying questions when you’re unsure. But, if you’re in a situation where you had no choice but to charge ahead anyway and now are being reprimanded, there’s nothing wrong with cluing your boss in on the fact that you were lacking that crucial knowledge beforehand.

For example, perhaps you did create that report in Google Docs–but you’re new and nobody has ever told you that your company prefers Word. Did you commit the error? Sure. However, you did so due to a lack of clear instruction and not because you’re sloppy and careless.

Want to make this phrase even better? Tack on something like, “Thanks for enlightening me–I’ll definitely keep that in mind for next time.”


Related: Three ways to point to blame that are actually productive


2. “I did it that way because…”

When to use it: When the person blaming you is missing out on some crucial context.

Why it works: This is the the opposite of that past scenario. You’re being told that you did something incorrectly, despite the fact that there’s logical justification behind why you did it that way.

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This is your chance to explain your thought process to whoever is pointing their finger and share that it wasn’t actually a mistake but a conscious decision.

Maybe you had to stray from your company’s normal way of doing things because of strict time limitations or a specific request that the client made.

If something like that inspired your perceived blunder, it’s worth explaining that so that you can make it clear that there’s really no fault to be assigned here–it was actually the best way to handle things in that particular situation.

3. “I think there’s some confusion about this–can we talk about it in a team meeting?”

When to use it: In situations where you’re being blamed for something that your colleague actually screwed up.

Why it works: Without a doubt, this is the trickiest situation to handle. You want to make it clear that you had nothing to do with that mix-up–but, at the same time, you don’t want to throw your own co-worker under the bus.

While this question might seem a little passive aggressive, it can actually be an effective way to transition this from a supposed solo mistake to something that applies to your whole department.

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If your boss begins scolding you or pointing out your misstep in that group meeting? You can hope that the team member who’s actually responsible will step up and take accountability.

But, if not, you can at least rest assured that the correction will get passed along to the person who actually needed it.


Related: This accountability tactic works for kids, teens, and work teams 


Being blamed for something when you don’t deserve it is frustrating. You don’t want to be looked at as the culprit, but at the same time you don’t want to seem like a tattletale who’s passing the buck.

If the situation is truly minor, sometimes it’s better to rely on a simple, “I’m sorry” or “It won’t happen again,” as opposed to offering an explanation. After all, is it really worth that added effort to clear your name as the offender who didn’t fill the printer paper tray? Probably not.

However, in circumstances where you really need to provide an explanation, using the above three phrases can help you maintain your reputation–without sounding whiny.

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