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I am the office scapegoat. I loathe going to work…

Dear Office-Politics,

Good morning. I found your website while researching another insidious commonplace office problem, “workplace bullying and mobbing”. Until I began a position with a Municipality, after several self-employed years, I wasn’t even aware that this organizational issue existed. At first I began to question myself and all of my previous beliefs and perceptions, not because they failed me in the past, but because they were so out of sync with my current situation, that, I started severely doubting my abilities and judgement. I accepted what the “lifers” were saying and how they were behaving because I just didn’t know the culture or the hierarchical structure, so, I tried my best to understand their perspectives and methods, but, what I found is that because I didn’t bring any “personal baggage” with me, and I just do my job professionally, don’t complain, don’t socialize, take responsibility for my actions, treat everyone with respect as a professional, and “assume” that this respect and interaction would be reciprocated, was my first mistake.

It took me about two years of frustration, anger, depression, physical exhaustion, utter detachment, fatigue and sleeplessness, to realize that I have become a “target” a “scapegoat” for the office dysfunction. Beginning with the director all the way down to the mail clerk. Upon further research I realized that what I thought was only my imagination, turned out to be reality, and that others suffer the same type of silent torture, endured daily, with no one to discuss this with, especially their direct superior, because the supervisor wittingly or unwittingly condones this type of behavior. I tried appealing to my Director on an emotional level, an intellectual level, a professional level, and worst of all, a personal level, that was my second mistake.

Now, after almost three years of being the office “scapegoat”, am I able to finally cope with the effects, coping is one thing, but, changing the culture or even altering perceptions is another.

Briefly, there is one coworker (a narcissistic and psychopathic bully) in particular that is constantly, scrutinizing, criticizing and running in and out of the directors office with rumor and gossip, it’s disgusting. To this day I loathe going to work to endure more of the same, whatever happened to common decency and treating others with dignity and respect, accepting differences of thought and feeling? (that’s a semi rhetorical question)

Please respond with any suggestions or thoughts you may want to share, as I am sure for me and others that accept this type of fate, would be beneficial in the daily struggle to survive this kind of abuse.

Thank you,

Counting the tacks on my cubicle walls…

timothy johnson

Dear Counting the Tacks,

To quote Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Unfortunately, the failure appears to be coming from you. Gone are the days when a person could merely show up to work, put his head down at his desk, do his work, and expect to be left alone and treated with respect. Your lack of socializing early on appears to be coming back to bite you now. You’ve been singled out as the “weakest of the herd” and as such, an easy target.

However, your early mistakes are now water under the bridge, and we cannot turn back the clock. What we can do is reset it moving forward.

You did imply in your letter that there are others like you who suffer in silence. Hence, your first step is to begin building alliances with these individuals. In most office politics situations, there is safety in numbers. Simple gestures like going out to lunch, walking, breaks together, or a simple conversation can begin building bridges. This does not mean you have to “bring your baggage” to work. I’m assuming you have hobbies, interests, family and/or friends, or other points of safe conversation.

The second challenge you have to face is some self assessment. You mentioned you had spent twelve years as a self-employed professional. That’s quite an extreme to go from a long-term self-employed individual to working for a government entity. You might ask yourself if your specific problem is not so much a case of office politics gone awry as it is a bad fit to a specific culture. Being self-employed, I understand how we can become accustomed to the “lone wolf” mentality; however, organizations don’t work that way. Allowing yourself to become part of the team is challenging, but it’s a necessary step in the workplace acclimation process. As part of the strategy I mentioned above, you might also try to find some points of commonality with some of the more “astute” politicians in your office.

Next, you have the issue of the office bully to handle.
1. Your disdain for this person is loud and clear in your letter, and I’m wondering if you are giving off similar cues when you’re in his or her presence. I’ve seen people physically bristle and stiffen up when they’re around people they visibly do not like (I know I do it, if I don’t make a conscious effort to do otherwise). If you’re giving off these cues, you’re giving this person the permission and power to keep pushing your buttons and giving you further reasons not to like them. You may want to give a conscious effort to soften your stance around them (and others in your office).

2. The behavior you described appears to be more of an office gossip than that of a bully. The difference is engagement. A gossip uses passive activity and does not actively engage their targets; rather, the gossip goes behind backs to do damage. The bully, on the other hand, uses direct conflict to his or her advantage. There’s an open threat, either stated or implied, and it is generally delivered directly from the bully. The strategy for mitigating both a gossip as well as a bully is to rely on documentation and less on hearsay. Both rely on word-of-mouth and divide-and-conquer to gain power, and if you are able to maintain objectivity through written documentation, it takes away power.

3. You mentioned this particular bully is narcissistic; hence, ego and self-esteem appear to be motivating factors. Bullies, at their heart, are cowards with no healthy outlets, meaning that they do have a fear of something (my guess based on your comments is your bully has a fear of an undermined ego). You may use this information for good or for evil (I’d recommend the former over the latter). Try finding one genuine, professional thing that you can compliment this person on, and comment on it without forcing it. Then try again. If this person is getting strokes from you, then s/he may not be as inclined to attack you.

4. The scrutiny and criticism feed into #3 above. Try thanking the person for his or her input. Perhaps even trying to go to them proactively and ask for input (but take them your best work so they don’t have too much ammo to use behind your back). If this person is a total snake who is simply out to find fault, this may not be the best strategy; however, if s/he is simply looking for an ego buzz, this could be a helpful strategy.

Finally, you mentioned that all of this is affecting your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. No work environment should be oppressive to that point. It may be time to consider an exit strategy. You might look for something that is a better fit for you. Three years is too long to endure that kind of environment, especially if there is no sense of change on the horizon.

I hope this helps. Thank you for writing to Office-Politics.com,


Timothy Johnson, Author

Timothy Johnson is the author of the newly released Gust: The “Tale” Wind of Office Politics (Lexicon, 2007) as well as Race Through The Forest – A Project Management Fable (Tiberius, 2006). As Chief Accomplishment Officer for his company, Carpe Factum, Inc. (Latin for “Seize The Accomplishment”), he also is a dynamic speaker, providing keynotes and workshops on the accomplishment-oriented topics of project management, creativity, process improvement, systems thinking, and (of course) office politics. His consulting clients have crossed multiple industries and have included Wells Fargo, Harley-Davidson, ING, Teva NeuroScience, and Principal Financial Group. In addition to writing, consulting, speaking, and coaching, he is also an adjunct instructor for Drake University’s MBA program in Des Moines Iowa, teaching classes in Project Management, Creativity for Business, and Managing Office Politics.

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  1. 16 Answers to “I am the office scapegoat. I loathe going to work…”

  2. Scapegoating.
    I know my boss scapegoats because she gets in this mood about every six weeks. We can always tell when she is on the warpath. Someone will catch it for nothing and after she screams and yells it all out, she then gets very calm and happy, she even sits at her desk humming or singing a happy little tune. She’ll be in a good mood after chewing on someone’s personality for about six weeks until the mood hits her again! Her spouse is also a good indication of when she is in a bad mood or not depending on if he comes in smiling or slipping past the front desk quietly. I have just dismissed it as a medical condition she must have to which I am not responsible. It helps to keep me from trying to defend myself needlessly or to escalate the problem. When my commissions come in, I’ll politely and professionally find myself a more suitable employer. Life is too short to not enjoy your work and the people with whom you have to come in contact with everyday.

    By Jeanny on May 24, 2007

  3. I am interested in your advice regarding the necessity to socialize at work to have a peaceful day. Can you expand a little to explain why this has become an organizational requirement? While socializing may be pleasant it can also be unpleasant depending on the individuals in the office – in the interest of productivity its better not to go there. Personally, I like to be cordial and helpful and expect the same. The organization might be wise to recognize that an effective team is comprised of mature and motivated professionals. The model involving socializing can wax into clicky, petty gossips – that’s a gang not a team.

    By Donna on May 9, 2008

  4. Leave on a high note….llike George Costanza.

    Keep ‘em guessing
    Keep ‘em laughing

    Hey, losers at my last job…get this….my new job is exciting, wonderful, progressive, and in touch…with more to come
    EAT YOUR HEARTS OUT…oh, and did I mention state retirement benefits? New hospital…new opportunities…

    What part of this do you not understand?

    By Barb Dion on May 10, 2008

  5. Throughout my school days I was a scapegoat, butt of jokes, victim, sucker, stooge, gimp, bottom of the pack, etc, etc, etc … (add any any other derogatory terms here!). I am 32 now and I realised a while back that I was actually *asking* to be the scapegoat without realising I was doing it! In TA terms I was playing the “kick me” and “please don’t kink me” games while the bullies were playing the “now I’ve got you, you son of a bitch” game. Furthermore, I realised that my unconscious “asking for it” came from my childhood, particularly my Mother whom I strongly identified with and who was particularly submissive to my bullying Father. In my own turn, I would deliberately but unconsciously seek approval from the people who would belittle me the most – so I became a self-fulfilling prophecy. My solution? Stop playing the “kick me” and “please don’t kick me” games! Those people who want to play “now I’ve got you, you son of a bitch” won’t be able to handle it – and they will leave you alone!

    I suggest being sociable, talkative and friendly while at the same time remaining professionally detached and not revealing very much of your private life. I am aware that the the American office social dynamic is possibly different to the English one (I am English), but that solution seems to work for me :o)

    By Mike E on Jun 5, 2008

  6. Unfortunately, everyone seems to offer advice to the person who is being scapegoated. Actually, it is a problem with the people who are doing the scapegoating. I wish I had a solution for you. I am a “veteran” of sorts, having been the scapegoat twice before…and now again. I notice that these are less experienced supervisors who also have a different communication style from the employee. They are not quite bullies, but the experience undermines your confidence, and alas, your future performance. Typically, the employee has more than the usual intelligence and/or experience than someone who has been there for years. That means, even if you are doing your job well, if there is a delay or some other obstacle, you will be blamed for doing it your way, adding some change you thought would make a difference and they will want to watch how you do the tasks and retrain you. You are a threat, no matter how tame and passive you try to be. You are tainted by the finding by them that it is your fault for the delay, or you did not evince the proper amount of concern. I have not found any way of successfully changing that. When they see that you still do the task at all differently (observation and communication in your style are not connecting), they decide that you really are not capable. From there, you are weeks or months away from just having to leave. Make up a backup plan to move on and keep everything close to your chest.
    HR will not be able to help you.

    By Mary Andersen on Jun 26, 2010

  7. I am experiencing this every so often at work. I hate coming in when I know we are slow and there is no work, or they have just laid people off. What I have noticed is that whenever there is a problem and it could be connected to me, then it is brought to me and I am questioned. I find that most of the problems are things that I was trained to do it that way or these people will have made the mistake themselves and through questioning me to nail me with it, they find it was their own mistake. My supervisor even brought me something yesterday saying I had a workorder for something and it ended up the unit never had a workorder and it wasn’t what he said it was. He was trying to nail me with a big mistake on a large rush order we were trying to get out. I was so frustrated going home after having 3 different instances in one day. Usually I have another team player who is a lead that likes to come over and ask questions with a dominant tone of voice and he also raises his voice like your in trouble to stir you up. He will ask were something is and if I know anything about a particular order that is missing or what not. It is annoying. I wish people would cut the bull crap, and communicate with respect and quit treating others like they are children! This person has been complained about several times by many people but nothing happens. I complained and my superior would not let all three of us have a meeting instead he wanted to talk to us seperately. Evenutally the guy appologized for his behavior.

    By Jeannie on Aug 31, 2010

  8. I have noticed that scapegoating is a technique used to discredit people to fulfill some other agenda. It may nothing to do with the person, but perhaps it is a territorial thing, where someone wants to take over responsibility for some function that the scapegoat has control over. Or, in order to outsource a function, that function has to be vilified in order to create an artificial problem that needs to be solved. So, these people have a solution and no problem, so they have to make up a problem. An easy target is someone who is low in rank and performs a function that few people understand. The less that is understood about the job, the easier it is to make up lies about it. So it is not always a personal attack, so don’t automatically take it as one. I hope this makes you feel a little better about your situation. You should go to H.R. and explain what is happening, so you get it on record.

    By Natalie on Oct 26, 2010

  9. I am in the same boat as counting the tacks and I did precisely all the things you told this person to do. Bottom line, the situation is still the same there are nasty people in this world who achieve personal satisfaction from bringing people down and office bullying is a way of life for alot of people no matter how you deal with it.

    By Ann on Nov 11, 2010

  10. I am so glad to find out that I am not the only one!!! I hope everyone finds a way to cope….will be working on this myself!

    By Indrani on Apr 13, 2011

  11. You are most likely a scapegoat for one of three reasons: 1) You are different. You may have a different ethnicity, gender, or mentality, but you are somehow different from the rest. It could be that you have a different organizational style or you are a visionary. People hate difference. History has proven this, and it is deeply rooted. In the past, you would get burned at the stake for witchcraft or thrown into a gas chamber. In today’s world, you just get blamed for the coffee maker breaking or the plugged toilet. If you are a scapegoat due to this reason, then it might be wise to seek a job with a culture where difference is respected rather than hated. 2) You seek change in the office. Perhaps you think that scheduling of the conference room could be computerized. Or the office furniture would be better in a certain arrangement. Most people are habitual creatures. When you suggest change, it makes them uneasy. They have negative feelings towards you. So when something goes wrong, it automatically becomes your fault, no matter how conscientious you were. 3) You don’t buy in to their silent social structure. The bully usually builds a cohort, but if you don’t fall into line, then you become a target. Perhaps you don’t give what they value the same weight, or you see passed their mirages. Perhaps you just believe that all people are of equal intrinsic worth. Whatever the reason, whether you are conscious of this or not, you threaten their social position and become an adversary. “When you play a game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” G.R.R. Martin

    Possible answers to this problem: you can either change who you are and sell yourself out or weather the storms or find somewhere better. Be introspective and figure out if you would even want to change. If you do not, try to ignore the trivial dramas and stand up for yourself in the non-trivial cases. Always be respectful (even if they are disrespectful to you) and always be professional, but don’t be a doormat. Know that people will try to use you as a scapegoat, but it is a price you might always have to pay for maintaining your identity and your values. A better answer is to seek out a company culture that fits your personality and forgives your flaws (we all have them, no matter how hard we work to minimize them. We should always work to minimize them, but we should not have to suffer incrimination every day for them).

    By Ron on Jun 5, 2011

  12. The problem is not with the scapegoat it is with the scapegoater. People don’t like it when they can’t fit you in to a box or with a label. Or when you don’t fit in with them and their beliefs. Meaning you are independent, don’t gossip, don’t feel the need to feel accepted, do your job, and keep to yourself. Those are the ones that get the most strife. Whenyou stand alone and do it with dignity you run this risk. But stay strong to not comform unless you really want something for YOU. Conforming is boring and going along with office “high school antics” to fit in is obviously beneath you. When will people grow up? The problem is that people are have no minds of their own anymore. They have lost all ability to think “objectively.”

    I am sorry for what you going through but understand completely. As I have also been subjected to the same thing. And the problem is not with you. As the first commenter stated when he gave that “being the weakest of the herd” speech. If anything standing on ones own with a consistent set of values based on performance not office antics and not gossiping in not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength. When you constantly gossip you are the weak one constantly looking for approval and acceptance in a demeaning and childish way that by no means shows anyone’s ability to do a good job or be a good upstanding citizen. Participating in bad-mouthing or talking about someone else is looking for assurances and approval from someone else and its sign of low self esteem and weakness because you are afraid to stand alone, and need a group to back you up. It is so far from a sign of strength and makes you look like you have no identity of your own. People are threatened by this. Basically your self worth is based on others approving of what you believe regardless of whether its really right or wrong. People need their own identities and beliefs and at the same time to be able to work together in a neutral environment toward constructive goals. Not sneaking into offices and being pressured to become part of some office bash session against one person. How ludicrous, that is unprofessional high school behavior. I thought we were a little more intelligent than animals? With the ability understand that people come in all shapes and sizes and with different beliefs and that it only adds to the experience by bringing challenging views to the working environment.

    By skarrlette on Aug 21, 2011

  13. Hi,
    I hope you are holding out fine by this time, but if you are still aren’t, I hope that you know that the fault lies not with you, but the scapegoaters. I’m sorry, but I have to call out on the advice by Timothy Johnson above – it reeks of victim blaming. Never, ever, even for one second internalize the blame. Sure, we all have the occasional annyoing office habit, and those are valid points, but that doesn’t mean that the bullying is justified.

    I echo the advice by skarrlette that everyone has the right to work in peace and have their rights, values and dignity be respected. I have just come out from a HORRID 6-months experience at a top news company where I was bullied time and time again, not just by colleagues but also by my boss who blatantly did the bullying (sexual harassment, yelling, threatening, mocking, sarcastic comments, gaslighting and the silent treatment were among the stuff that I had to go through). I was determined to fight it out as much as I could, and kept silent and did my work the best I could.

    Trust me, if you are a performer (and you have to be honest with yourself about your work performance), that your boss needs you more than you need them . I know this, because I was offered to stay by my boss when I resigned, but I was so wiped out by the experience that I just had to leave. But how did I manage to survive for 6 months, though? A lot of self-love!

    – Whenever people treat you badly, they are giving the message that you are unworthy – just don’t believe it. Each time, say, I was thrown a sarcastic comment, I would tell myself, “I am perfectly okay with myself”. That Eleanor Roosevelt quote that no one can make you inferior without your consent is cliched, but true.

    – Seek positive energy. This is something that I regret not doing much of. Sure, a lot of people were assholes to me, but there were also one or two people who weren’t and I regret not seeking out their company. Also, can you sneak in an outing to the museum or listen to your favourite classical music on your MP3?

    – Throw yourself into the work. Try to recycle that negative energy into positive energy. Can you make your work more interesting and enjoyable?

    – Get on with your work. Each time I was treated badly, I would imagine my resentment and ill-feeling growing into a ball, and of throwing this ball away to my back.

    – Seek out support. Speak to good friends, trusted family members and a counsellor. But beware of toxic comments (some people mean well, but they are doing harm when they ask you to change your behaviour to accommodate to the bully).

    – Exercise!

    – Cry! Trust me, it’s not a sign of weakness, but a good way to let go.

    – I know that this is hard, but try not to bring your ill-feeling and resentment home. Each time I finished work, I would wipe my hand off to throw away the negative energy.

    – Do you believe in God? I do, and I took my friend’s advice that whatever challenges – and challenging people – that you meet, it is just a challenge to God to make you better. And I tried to put things into perspective: I gain some, I lose some and that I can’t possibly have everything.

    – Forgive. Each time I was treated badly, and I couldn’t do anything about it (i.e. trying to bite my tongue with my boss when she provoked me), I would tell myself to just forgive.

    That said, I wish I wasn’t so stubborn and sought-out a better place which respected my values and dignity. Because three-months later, I am still recuperating from the exhaustion of it all.

    I wish you and everyone that is in the same situation the best of luck.

    By Mo on Jan 17, 2012

  14. timothy,
    with all due respect, but you are wrong about socializing. socializing with coworkers will not help. and this topic goes beyond office politics only. it is much more broad problem of our entire society. this is the culture of bullies. they are at every corner. soft souls do not have chance in this reality. they pay price of being scapegoats with the psychological and medical problems that arise. root of the problem is that we have forget our basic values. we turned back on them. everything goes back to the basic unit of the society – family. this is the place that should teach us about moral, empathy, love, civility, manners. where is that all gone? and where is that all going? who knows. i hope that person who wrote initial post is doing well, but having in mind how things work – i doubt it. there is nothing else to offer him than to say that i understand him. my advice is – go back to be your own employer if any possible. things will not change. you are soft, sensitive person, and there is no place for you in this society. any job you take will be the same. i wish i could offer you a better perspective, but unfortunately i can not. old good times when we knew what the honor is are gone.

    By tina on Jan 13, 2013

  15. Well, it is now 2013 and I hope you have left this toxic situation. I am currently in this situation and I totally understand. The person who put the blame on you is an idiot and does not have a clue what he is talking about. The bullies are jealous and usually have psychiatric issues, particularly personality disorders. The only solution to this problem is to leave until you find a decent environment.

    By Ann Hale on Oct 3, 2013

  16. Meh, in my experience every “Office Scapegoat” or office “outsider” generally brings it on themselves. And the probably have a life long history from childhood of the same behavior. If you have been the office scapegoat more than once, it is YOUR fault. Its not at all likely that you switched places of employment and ended up in an entirely different situation with entirely different people and got picked out as an “outsider” again. The last outsider in our office made mountains out of molehills with every situation from where he got to park to how clients interacted with him. Even ordering lunch was a chore with this guy. Talk about a toxic environment and bullying, here was one guy who made the lives of the other thirty folks in the office a living hell. Yet to here him tell the story it was all Us vs Lonely old him. He got fired, and than he came out he had been fired from his last job, and we know he got fired from the next 2 jobs he took (We are in a big metro but our industry is small and everyone knows everyone.) When everyone in the building hates you, you are to blame.

    By Kevin on Oct 31, 2013

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