by Dr. Danna Bodenheimer, LCSW, author of Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way
At the agency where I am in charge, I recently hired someone who had been fired from her last job. A few people asked me if I had known that she was fired, and I said, “Absolutely.” There are times when people are fired because they have a poor work ethic or have made compromised and problematic choices. There are also times, many in fact, when people are fired because they have become their agency's scapegoat. These employees, in my experience, are often brave risk takers who have taken the fall for complex organization dynamics. Furthermore, social workers often take the fall for larger issues in interdisciplinary settings because of our low ranking on the overall professional totem pole.
Let’s start with the original story of the scapegoat. The scapegoat, as an archetype, is mentioned everywhere from the Bible to Greek mythology. While there are variations on how the story is told, the basic summary is that an animal is used to represent all of the sins of the community. The animal was typically a goat. Members of the community would go to the goat and confess their sins. When the ritual was over, the goat would be sent into exile, cleansing the community of its wrongdoings. The term scapegoat has come to mean the person in the system who bears the blame and burden, unfairly, for others.
There are several ways in which the scapegoat gets chosen, unconsciously. First, perhaps the scapegoat is quite outspoken and is vulnerable to giving voice to the issues that no one else wants to. In taking this risk, it is easy to become targeted, because of perceptions that are established around this person’s already existing role. When the blame shifts to this specific target, no one is particularly surprised or suspicious.
Second, members of racial groups that already bear the brunt of significant misperception are more apt to fall prey to the part of the scapegoat. It is not uncommon in group settings that have disproportionate representations of diversity for the minority group member to become scapegoated by complex unconscious processes.
Further, in settings where social workers do not have a lot of power, but do have a lot of responsibility, the possibility of becoming scapegoated increases significantly. This becomes even more true when the level of responsibility that the social worker holds is actually untenable and unrealistic. When we are unable to achieve the tasks in front of us, we often become scapegoated, rather than better supported to do our jobs.
There are central pieces of the scapegoating process that are worth keeping in mind, particularly as it relates to social work. Scapegoating removes us from one of our central ethical constructs, which is to see everything as part of a whole. When someone is scapegoated, we are denying this conceptualization in the service of identifying an easy target. Further, scapegoating can only occur when we turn a blind eye to complex power dynamics. It is our work, when someone is scapegoated, to try and unearth what structures are at play that have made the simplistic blame game possible.
These are some of the underlying reasons why scapegoating might occur:
- Complex grant funding structures. Many of us work in jobs that are grant funded. These jobs are either funded philanthropically or by state and government entities. In order for funding to continue, of course, proof of progress must be consistently reported. To secure a grant, agencies often promise more than they can actually deliver. Furthermore, grants typically have indirect reporting structures, meaning that the social worker with feet on the ground is not typically the person reporting directly to the funder. When the funder is disappointed or the funds are threatened, it is almost always the social worker who is doing the direct service who gets blamed, in the interest of preserving the relationships of the people above them.
- Salaries, assumptions, power dynamics. Other agencies or organizations, like hospitals or medical settings, for example, rely on social workers to complete the work of both assessment and discharge. The work that is done in between is considered the work of the utmost importance. This is true of surgery, giving out antibiotics, and psychiatric prescriptions. Because so much of the work that falls outside of social work is considered more important, our value is established as relatively “less” than those around us. There is a saying, often used in work places, that goes: “the last one in is the first one out.” While social workers might not be the last ones in, they are paid the least (frequently). Our work can be considered dispensable. Therefore, when something doesn’t go well, overall, we tend to be the first one out, or the first one blamed. Furthermore, we keep such a tremendous amount of information in our heads, our processes are so unknown to the disciplines around us, that the depth of our work can be dangerously underestimated. Think, for example, of what occurs when there is a death of a child in the care of Human Services. Often the mayor or governor will demand an explanation from the head of Human Services and the head of Human Services will serve up a social worker as the part of the system that failed. Rather than looking at the overall system, we are often the ones to take the fall.
- We tell difficult truths. As social workers, we are imbued with the responsibility to act as social change agents. This often means that we see unacceptable dynamics around us, dynamics that fall short of anything that could be considered socially just. When we see these dynamics or failures, we give voice to them. In doing this, and often revealing what those around us don’t want to hear, we risk becoming scapegoated. While there is sometimes reward for acting as the squeaky wheel, there is also tremendous professional risk associated with it.
Some ways to handle scapegoating
- Pay attention: If you are not the scapegoat, but someone around you is, don’t feel relieved. The fact that scapegoating is possible at all, in a social service agency, means that it can happen to you. There is little safety in a setting that unevenly distributes blame. It is important to study this dynamic and to be wary of it, rather than to take comfort in having nearly dodged it.
- Enlightened witnesses: Alice Miller, author of The Drama of the Gifted Child, describes the essential role that enlightened witnesses play in group processes. Enlightened witnesses are colleagues and social work peers who bear witness to the complexity of our work, are eager to understand our processes, and can stand up for us when others cannot see our strengths clearly. Having an enlightened witness can either prevent the possibility of being scapegoated or can aid in our efforts to make sense of being scapegoated when it occurs. Either way, these partners in work can make a huge psychological difference.
- Reviews: People are far more susceptible to scapegoating when they are not being reviewed on a regular basis. When we are not clear about how we are doing and there is no formal review structure, we are far more vulnerable to sudden shifts in perception and leadership moods. The more that we are kept in the loop about our performance and the better documented our reviews are, the more control we have over surprising dynamics at work.
- Structural transparency: It is always essential to have a clear sense of how the structure at your workplace functions. For example, if you are in a grant funded position, you should collect information about the funder. The more you know, the more potential you have to avert being blindsided by opaque modes of communication.
Preparing yourself and studying scapegoating dynamics is both empowering and a social work value. It is our work to see complex systemic functioning, which scapegoating almost always renders reductive. And if you have been scapegoated, it is worth knowing that this might be a result of your social work strength and tenacity, not your weakness or inefficacy.
Dr. Danna R. Bodenheimer, LCSW, is in private practice at Walnut Psychotherapy Center in Philadelphia, PA, and teaches at Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. Read more of her clinical perspective and tips on the most burning questions of developing clinicians in her book, Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way.