Attention HR profession: How to deal with a scapegoat in your company

By liamarus, 4 April, 2014

by Ivan Israelstam

We've been consulted when there's been a crisis in a workplace (e.g. important clients were offended or the company lost money) but an innocent person has been blamed. It's been our experience – as reported by members of the HR profession - that when this happens, managers run for cover while pointing fingers. Sometimes, the accusing finger is in fact pointed in the right direction but just as often the wrong person's head rolls because the culprits have conspired to scapegoat an easy target. As someone in the HR profession, how would you deal with a situation like this?

Very frequently, by the time the scapegoat has been able to recover from the shock of the false allegations - and has perhaps even been able to throw some doubt on the allegations against him - the damage has been done:

  • The culprits have closed ranks and testimony is hard to come by,
  • Important documentary evidence has been doctored or destroyed,
  • The powers-that-be have decided the real culprit is not expendable,
  • It's been agreed who'll have to be sacrificed, and
  • Acrimony and backstabbing have destroyed the working relationship and the scapegoat no longer wants to stay with the company.

Choosing a scapegoat has serious consequences

The employee's name will have been muddied and his career prospects may have been damaged. It then comes as no surprise that the employee refers the matter to the CCMA or bargaining council.

What does the CCMA say about scapegoating?

Clearly, labour law arbitrators take a dim view of scapegoating as this would make a dismissal substantively unfair. For example, in the case of NEHAWU obo September vs the National Department of Social Services (2004, 5 BALR):

  • The scapegoat was a senior administrator, called Mr September, and he was dismissed after his personal IP address was used to verify false social grant beneficiaries.
  • Several other employees whose IP addresses had been similarly misused were also disciplined but received only final warnings.
  • The administrator claimed that he had been scapegoated because the employer was under pressure to deal with the matter. That is, the employer was at fault for the fraud because its systems weren't secure.
  • To deflect blame, the applicant argued, the employer used him as a scapegoat.

The arbitrator found that:

  • There was no proof that the administrator had benefited from the fraud.
  • There were indeed serious defects in the system that could allow fraud to occur. For example, employees were allowed to swop computers.
  • The computer numbers of other employees had also been used to perpetrate fraud.
  • While the applicant had failed a polygraph test, his claim - that he suffered from a mental disease that prevented him from responding to such tests - was not challenged.
  • The applicant had been targeted because the amount of the fraud committed via his IP address was the highest. This was unfair because, because of his senior position, he had the authority to work with higher amounts.
  •  The dismissal was unfair and the applicant was reinstated.

This article first appeared on HR Pulse.



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