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What to do if someone throws you under the bus at work

11th Aug 2022 | 08:00am

If you’ve ever been betrayed at work for someone else’s gain, you know what it’s like to be thrown under the bus. Maybe you were blamed for something you didn’t do. Or maybe a coworker embarrassed you publicly to gain points with someone else.

Kevin R. Kehoe’s “under the bus” situation came when he and his former business partner were selling their company, Aspire Software. Without Kehoe’s knowledge, the partner had discussions with the purchasing firm during negotiations. Kehoe thought he’d be leading the company after its acquisition, but the position went to his partner.

“I thought I’d be the CEO, but I ended up being the chairman of nothing and that was a bit of a betrayal,” says Kehoe, who chronicles this experience and more in his book One Hit Wonder: The Real-Life Adventures of an Average Guy and the Lessons He Learned Along the Way. “Ultimately, I wasn’t kicked out of the company, but I was kicked upstairs into a non-line position. In the entrepreneurial world, scenarios like mine happen a lot.”

What to do if you’re ‘under the bus’

Once a situation has happened, there’s often not a lot of negotiation that will change the decision that has been made. You can feel personally hurt, but Kehoe says the best thing to do is to accept that this thing has happened and find a way forward.

“Get to the truth and find out what really happened,” he suggests. “I went back and asked them what the reasoning behind the decisions was. I think that’s fair.”

While it may be hard to let go of your feelings, don’t obsess—it will never serve you well, advises Kehoe. “As much you’re tempted to find comfort with other people in the organization about how you got scrubbed, that’s the worst thing to possibly do,” he says. “Don’t overreact to the situation and don’t go back and try to sabotage.”

If the situation has you thinking of quitting, Kehoe suggests staying a while to see what will happen. “Make the best of what’s been handed or given to you,” he says. “Maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world. As things evolve, you may find that something better will happen for you that you couldn’t see in the moment.”

But if you feel strongly about leaving, do so professionally. Kehoe says he was ultimately asked to leave after the final buyout, but the move led him to explore new and better things. “Know that you’re probably going to end up in a better place than where you were,” he says.

What to take away from the experience

Once you process the situation, learn from it. Kehoe says he realized that there’s a limit to loyalty. “The way I was brought up is that you dance with the one who brung you, but I know there are limits to that concept,” he says. “Things change and maybe you don’t fit anymore.”

It’s also important to realize that some decisions are political. For example, Kehoe says people who tend to disagree or bring up unpleasant information are not seen as team players. Some organizations only want team players.

“You can’t be honest all the time,” he says. “Realize that as you try to grow up in an organization, competency can look like arrogance. Sometimes chemistry matters more.”

Kehoe says people tend to trust others too much. He suggests paying close attention to the people closest to you who may have things to gain. Look for warning signs that they aren’t trustworthy. Red flags are when someone doesn’t share a lot of information about themselves, or they have a “credit problem, taking credit for things they didn’t do. Gather input from people around you who care about you. Kehoe says his wife noticed that his former partner claimed credit for ideas that were Kehoe’s.

And while it’s usually too late, the ultimate red flag is when someone says, “this is not personal. It’s just business.” “You should realize there’s a bus coming somewhere,” says Kehoe.

Realize you can only control yourself, who you are, and how you approach things. “This idea of being a team player becomes a pretty big deal as you get up in the ranks with executive teams,” he says. “As much as I dislike it, honesty takes a second place to getting along.”

While you may feel like the victim, Kehoe says it takes two to tango. “I’m certainly not a victim; I contributed to what happened,” he says. “I didn’t see it exactly the way they would see things, but I had my part to play. I think you have to accept that you played a part in what happened, and to the extent you can control things, control them. Then move on quickly.”