Scapegoating sours workplace and often leads to upheaval

In some offices, people focus on a person as responsible for their dissatisfaction and blame the person for causing it, according to Jessica Campbell, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Palm Beach, Fla. These situations often lead to upheaval in the workplace, with the scapegoat being terminated, resigning or doing anything to hang on.

Not all scapegoats know why they’re being blamed, whether for performance, personality or some other reason, Campbell says. Some complain about the treatment, while others hide and may regroup. The person who attacks a scapegoat may or may not be in a position of power.

Can you sue an employer for scapegoating? Nicholas Woodfield, principal at The Employment Law Group P.C., headquartered in Washington, D.C., reports that although “scapegoating is antisocial behavior … generally it’s only unlawful when it expresses a clearer case of wrongdoing – most often, discrimination or retaliation.”


Campbell observed scapegoating in action in another department when she was a therapist in a company being reorganized. Employees blamed a new hire for the group’s poor performance. Years of negative culture fueled their anger. He was the focus.

Heidi Yates-Akbaba is CEO and founder of J1 Financial Services LLC in Napa, Calif. She’s encountered four scapegoats, all in different scenarios. The first was her CEO, whom the owner blamed for problems in the company. He ultimately resigned and might have claimed age discrimination. The second objected to unethical behavior and resigned, forced out. The last two were blamed for poor performance. One was terminated; the other continues to work until she’s ready to go. She’s gained support by enlisting her employees to perform at their highest level.

The group of four wasn’t at fault, Yates-Akbaba reports, while the new hire, because of his strong personality, “wasn’t widely liked,” Campbell says. “He was bewildered, repeating, ‘I don’t understand where this is coming from’ and ‘I don’t understand why you’re so angry with me.’ He understood that (the situation) didn’t feel right but might not have known he’d become a conduit for what people were unhappy about.”

Were the scapegoats powerless? All found resources but the CEO. One is working with an attorney on unfair termination charges. Three turned to HR. Two went to Yates-Akaba for counseling. Although the new hire spoke with his immediate supervisor, Campbell says she isn’t aware of any action taken but her own, which involved researching organizational structure and, at the group’s next meeting several days later, discussing inappropriate behavior and labeling. She attributes the failure of the man’s efforts to get help from co-workers to widespread anxiety of job loss during the company’s upheaval.

“Scapegoating happens passively,” Campbell says, “with a belief that if we get rid of you or force you to change, things can get better. The person was trying to discharge the negative emotions that already existed. A group is a social system. A person not fully within that social system doesn’t have enough influence in the group. No one wanted to risk (his or her) own neck to save the new guy.

“Something about a scapegoat is resonating in an uncomfortable way,” she says. “Scapegoating is about defending your ego. It provides us with a discharge of our own negative emotion. We objectify the person and have a pleasurable feeling.”

Yates-Akbaba indicates that the people who turned others into scapegoats have suffered in some way, either personally, in their career or in their businesses, the last either weakening or falling apart. “It doesn’t happen overnight,” she says, “but it eventually does happen.”

Dr. Mildred L. Culp of WorkWise® welcomes your questions at © 2013 Passage Media.