Rob, a union member, worked for the same company seventeen years without incident. But when he was transferred to a new work group he was picked on unmercifully by a perfectionist boss, Raymond. The more Rob tried to satisfy Raymond's unrealistic demands for perfection, the more Raymond expected.
A year after the transfer, Rob had a breakdown and took a month medical leave of absence recommended by his psychiatrist. When Rob returned, Raymond refused to honor the psychiatrist's request for conflict resolution or to transfer Rob back to his old work group. Raymond insisted that his hounding of Rob was intended to help correct his "poor performance." After another six months, Rob was fired; his poor performance fulfilled Raymond's irrational prophecy.
In the UK what happened to Rob is called "bullying," in Sweden it's called "mobbing," and in Tokyo where it is unlawful to fire a worker, shaming a worker to force him or her to quit sometimes ends in suicide. By whatever name, scapegoating of an individual worker is common in authoritarian work organizations around the world.No studies have been made of the frequency of scapegoating in the US. But a London-based Institute for Personnel and Development 1996 survey showed 1 out of 8 workers have been bullied in the past five years.
In Rob's case, the union steward, the president of the local, and the union's business agent called the conflict between Raymond and Rob "a personality problem." Fortunately, they did not encourage Rob to file a grievance, which would not have helped Rob escape Raymond's misuse of role abuse---and may have amplified it.Although scapegoating is commonly seen as conflict between two people, it is actually a work systems issue. Scapegoating happens in work systems with authoritarian power structures. It does not happen in work systems where power is shared, people are involved in decisions, and easily and openly confront poor behaviors.
Scapegoating is much easier to prevent than stop. If you suspect you or someone you know is on the way to being scapegoated, make an evaluation before acting.
Answer yes or no to these questions:
If your answer is yes to question one, and no to question 2, you must leave the situation (similar to the one Rob faced) as soon as possible, because you (or your friend) are being treated irrationally, and no matter what you do, you won't be able stop it once it escalates. Unfair termination is often the outcome.
Understanding scapegoating is the key to preventing it. More information as to why it happens, what to do to prevent it, and many case examples are included in the book, Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It.