I've worked with a CEO of a small company who never admit its mistakes, but usually choose a scapegoat which will be blamed publicly. How to deal with this kind of situation in general?

Edit: I would prefer constructive solutions to conflicting ones.

  • 2
    An example would be great. Are they mistakes, or bad outcomes; those are not the same. Are you being blamed for things you've never been involved with and never heard of? Or are you being blamed for things that touch your job? What form does the blaming take? Has the blaming affected your salary reviews? Could you add some specifics to your question?
    – dcaswell
    Aug 29, 2013 at 3:39

5 Answers 5


Executive Summary

Make sure you're not the scapegoat:

  1. Try not to fail
  2. If you do fail then fail with a smile
  3. Be nice

Nobody Gets Blamed for Succeeding

Find a way to make whatever you are assigned work out. If it works, he can't blame you for its failure, and it won't have been a mistake.

Positive Discouragement

If you think the boss is making a mistake, there's a good chance he can tell you think he's making a mistake. That means that if the project fails, he may very well blame you for that failure.

Assume he's right. If he asks you to move a mountain of sand with a pair of tweezers within the next 20 minutes, smile, pick up those tweezers, and get moving! A positive attitude toward an unreasonable request will make the task seem more absurd (and stand a good chance of making the boss feel bad about you rather than throwing you in the public stocks).

For tasks less obvious than moving a mountain of sand with tweezers, it may help to regularly point out that you're doing it, and seem to be visibly doing it to the people around. The goal is to show that you're really giving it an honest shot, and any failure isn't due to a poor attitude or lack of effort.

Business is People

Your CEO, as stubborn as he may seem, is also a human. He may have trouble at home. Or perhaps he took a hit in the market. Or his gout is acting up. Or his pet just died. Or all of these and more at the same time.

Separate the job he does (CEO with a mean streak) and the person he is (when not said CEO) and make sure you don't hold his actions as CEO against him as a person. Treating him like a human should (hopefully) take a bit of the edge off your interaction, and it may inspire him to view you as more than just another drone from sector C.

  • 7
    It seems to me the OP is saying "I have a problem with the CEO" and your answer reads "Carry on, pretend there is no problem". I don't have a better answer, but this is a very complacent stance on the issue.
    – MrFox
    Aug 28, 2013 at 13:12
  • We've discussed whether 'Quit your job' is an appropriate answer, and the hurdle is pretty high. The OP can quit (you can always quit), but that is a huge leap to make and something I would rather he/she make that decision based on the alternative (carry on, pretend there is no problem). You cannot change people (especially CEOs of companies) based on any "how to" found on the internet.
    – jmac
    Aug 28, 2013 at 13:36
  • "If he asks you to move a mountain of sand with a pair of tweezers within the next 20 minutes"... I worked on maintaining a software few months ago. Development and testing were done on two separate machines (even when changing a semi-colon), and transfer of any kind of data had to go throught him, even when he was abroad. The software had huge delay but he doesn't want to back off from this mode of functioning.
    – UmNyobe
    Aug 30, 2013 at 10:03
  • Btw I like your post, because I am looking for constructive solutions, not just conflict.
    – UmNyobe
    Aug 30, 2013 at 10:18
  • 1
    @aglassman we have discussed that 'quit your job' is not an appropriate answer in most circumstances. The person asking either (a) cannot quit (due to financial circumstances or otherwise), or (b) sees a shred of decency in the CEO and wants to know how to avoid personal hardship. If UmNyobe wants to leave, he/she can. Note that even UmNyobe likes this answer best because it is constructive! I fail to understand the negativity...
    – jmac
    Aug 30, 2013 at 14:42

Couple options:

  1. Side channels - if the concern is loss of reputation, then you need to get the word out informally to counter that.
  2. Documentation - if the CEO is using his blame-stick to justify loss-of-pay, bad reviews, etc., then you need to start documenting the instructions given - if push comes to shove, you have paperwork showing that the bad decision wasn't yours. (Beware "buy-in", which bad bosses use to push responsibility down by making you "agree" to their dumb idea)
  3. Coaching - if the above doesn't work (some bosses don't like paper-trails), then when chew-out time comes, ask for coaching on what should have been done differently. Sometimes the pushback will make the boss find a new sucker.
  4. Negotiate - if they're publicly using your name as a scapegoat (and you don't want to lawyer up), negotiate for better pay as compensation. (I had a boss who did this once - came in, was the public face of all the unpopular changes, actively encouraged all the hate to go his way, and then was "let go" with a nice severance. Changes stayed in place and the new boss didn't have to take the heat.)
  • Documentation is a big one.
    – aglassman
    Aug 30, 2013 at 14:37

As Harry Truman would say:

The Buck Stops Here!

The sign of a good CEO is to take ownership for failures. However it is not your job to teach your CEO this, but "leading upwards" is a skill that people need.

First determine if the CEO is receptive to feedback. Do you trust the CEO to take honest critique? If not, do you have any kind of anonymous feedback system in place? Again if you don't, you might want to suggest that first.

Next know, when you can say this. If the CEO is currently blaming someone, coming out with a comment on it is not going to be received except negatively.

As with dealing with any manager, you need to focus more on solving the issue rather then explaining what they are doing wrong. The CEO is already avoiding looking bad, so pointing out is going to end any form of dialogue.

For example: Maybe suggest an internal review board to track issues, so that they can point out to their customers they have a process board to handle problems as they arise. This allows the CEO to have documented feedback of what went wrong, who was involved, and how you plan to resolve it in the future.

In that instance, you can say something like:

Rather then telling the customer X screwed up, instead you can say 'This is how we are going to make it right in the future'.

One contention point I have on your post is this:

... but usually choose a scapegoat which will be blamed publicly. 

In some countries this can lead to litigation by the employee. Actually in some countries the companies can't even comment on the employee beyond "They worked here from X to Y".

If you are looking for material to read up on. I recommend "Lead your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up" by John Baldoni.


The right thing to do is leave - this is an oppressive environment and you shouldn't put up with it. However, for various reasons that option may not be available.

An alternative is to conference with the 'audience', the people that are being told the 'not quite right' story. If the boss spreads the manure around evenly then everyone gets theirs and everyone knows better. Otherwise, it might help to present an alternative point of view in settings where the boss isn't nearby.

The 'passive aggressive' response is to have some kind of poster or desk toy with a saying such as: '1. The Captain is always right. 2. If the Captain is wrong, see #1'. Perhaps you can find a mug or something that goes in the kitchen where the quote can't be attributed to any one person.

  • 6
    "leave" should only be used after all other options have been tried, otherwise you will very rapidly be a jobhopper. Aug 28, 2013 at 9:47
  • "leave" is not the only solution given in this answer @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen
    – rath
    Aug 28, 2013 at 18:02
  • @rath but it is the first... Aug 28, 2013 at 18:43
  • 2
    @rath "The right thing to do is leave" -- if it's the right thing, the other solutions are the wrong thing, no? We have had a lengthy discussion on whether 'Quit your job' is an appropriate answer (summary: usually not).
    – jmac
    Aug 29, 2013 at 1:52
  • I've been around bosses that are 'always right' and I've generally discovered this is something one can't do much about. This is simply a subset of people with listening problems, which is bad news for someone in a management role. There are people that eventually figure out what's going on, but it takes years, and generally a personal crisis or two, for them to realize what's going on. Aug 29, 2013 at 2:54

I'm not going to pretend this is an enjoyable situation, but are there any other negative consequences?

  • Written formal reviews indicate poor performance
  • Bonuses decreased
  • promotions and pay raises denied
  • denial of other privileges: expense account, time-off requests, free coffee, etc.
  • dismissal

If so, this is a serious problem.

My guess is this person feels he/she should never show weakness by admitting failures and is doing a little venting as well. He's in charge so there's nothing any of you can do about it (as far as he knows, but you can all slack off behind his back). If everyone starts acting like scared little children who have been scolded, he's being reinforced into thinking you'll all go back to your desks and work harder.

  • 1
    I got denied of a pay raise I didn't even requested. It was : I am going to give a raise, then nope, I changed my mind.
    – UmNyobe
    Aug 30, 2013 at 10:06
  • 1
    @UmNyobe - Did he give you an actual reason? Sounds like you work in a hostile workplace and should simply find new work.
    – Donald
    Aug 30, 2013 at 15:25

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