What It Means to Be Thrown Under the Bus — and How to Survive

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AnnaMarie Houlis4.87k
Journalist & travel blogger
May 29, 2024 at 1:54AM UTC
So you're going about your day when, suddenly, someone throws you under the bus for some work issue. They point a finger at you to accept blame for something that's not your sole fault or responsibility and, out of nowhere, you're forced to deal with the fallout of the situation.
But how exactly do you survive getting thrown under the bus without throwing someone else under the bus to get out of it?

What Does It Mean to Be Thrown under the Bus?

When someone throws you under the bus, they essentially make you their scapegoat.
"No one is certain where the phrase 'throw (somebody) under the bus' — meaning 'to betray or sacrifice a person, particularly for the sake of one’s own advancement, or as a means of safeguarding one’s own interests' — comes from," according to Merriam Webster. "But there's probably enough evidence to throw British English under the bus."
When you think about it, both "throw" and "under" have negative connotations.
"When throw is encountered in a phrase, it often is in such senses as throw a punch, throw (something) in a person’s face, or throw (one’s) hands up in disgust," Merriam Webster points out. "Under often plays a negative role as well, appearing in such turns of phrase as under the weather. So no, to throw someone under the bus is not a nice thing to do.”
But where does this expression come from? 
It's hard to pinpoint, but it became popular during the 2008 presidential election, according to Merriam Webster. It's since been attributed to minor league baseball, Cyndi Lauper, used car salesmen slang and a whole gamut of other sources.
The earliest written record of "under the bus" comes from a reference to a British politician in 1980: "The reaction of the Right to the events of the last year have varied depending on where in the spectrum they stand. Some still pin their hopes on the 'under the bus' theory, which has Mr. Foot being forced by ill health — or just the pressures of the job — to give way to Mr. Healey before the next election." — Elinor Goodman, Financial Times (London, England), December 10, 1980.
Still, this written version lacks the betrayal aspect of being thrown under a bus. But less than two years later, the term was used again in reference to British politics: "The Conservative benches listened to her in silence. She was in deep trouble and the lobbies hummed with the prospect of her departure. President Galtieri had pushed her under the bus which the gossips had said was the only means of her removal." — Julian Critchley, The Times (London, England), June 21, 1982.
So while no one knows for sure how the term came about, it's been used for decades to describe betraying someone in favor of one's own interests.

When Does It Happen at Work?

Unfortunately, people throw people under the bus all the time at work. It's not uncommon for a coworker to throw another coworker under the bus, or for a direct report to throw a colleague under the bus when reporting to their boss. It's also not uncommon for a boss to throw a direct report under the bus when talking to their boss.
You might get thrown under the bus if a project isn't finished on time, there's a mistake in a project, or there's been some sort of miscommunication among colleagues.
For example, you could be in a meeting and the boss asks, "What's the holdup on the marketing proposal?" If a coworker rushes in to cast blame on you, or another coworker (before checking in with either), that's a classic example of being thrown under the bus. Essentially, it's when you're put on the spot or called out in a public forum by someone else in a not pleasant way.
Whatever the case, being thrown under the bus isn't a fun position in which to be. It can hurt your career but, throwing someone else under the bus to save yourself can feel even worse.

What to Do if You're Thrown under the Bus

If you're thrown under the bus, rest assured that karma is in your favor. But that's not enough to get you out of a sticky situation.
Here are a few recommendations to help you survive being thrown under the bus:

1. Clear Your Head to Reflect on the Situation

Take a few moments to clear your head so you don't react in a way that you might regret. You don't want to go around pointing figures at someone else, and possibly throwing someone else under the bus when it's not their fault either. So take a walk. Go grab a coffee. Sit in a quiet office space for a few minutes. And wrap your head around the situation.
Ask yourself: What really happened? And who is actually at fault here? While you don't want to make any assumptions, taking a step back to reevaluate the situation will help you to see it clearer and even communicate what you think (and emphasis on the think) could have happened. This way you can let your employer, colleague or client know that you're not at fault, but X, Y or Z could have went wrong.

2. Propose a Solution to the Problem

On top of proposing what could have happened, propose a solution. In reality, what matters more than who messed up is how to fix what got messed up. If you really didn't do it, it'll come out in the wash — and you can even earn more brownie points for helping to find a solution to the problem even though it's not your problem to solve.

3. Talk to the Person Who Threw You under the Bus

If you know who threw you under the bus, perhaps you want to have a private conversation with them about why they threw you under the bus — even if it's a difficult conversation to have. It may be that they didn't know they were throwing you under the bus, and that they genuinely thought you were responsible for whatever the situation at hand may be. It may be, however, that they had ulterior motives and were only thinking of themselves.
Talking with the person will help you to better understand why they said what they said about you — and hopefully, stop them from doing it in the future. You'll feel much better about the situation if you approach it head on, as opposed to spreading more gossip and playing into the whole he-said-she-said game.

How Can You Avoid Throwing Someone Else under the Bus?

You don't want to end up throwing someone else under the bus when you're trying to survive yourself. Here are three tips to help you to avoid pointing more fingers.

1. Keep Honest

Be honest about what you know and what you don't know. If, for example, you're an editor and a piece of sponsored content is late to publish, and you know that the marketing team was late to send you the client materials for the piece, it's not throwing anyone under the bus by acknowledging the fact that the materials came to you late and, therefore, you wrote and published the piece late. If you're honest about what happened, only speaking what you know, then no harm, no foul.

2. Don't Make Assumptions

Don't make assumptions about other people. If, for example, the marketing team sent you materials late, don't assume that's because they dropped the ball. Perhaps the client sent them materials late, or perhaps there was a lot of back and forth with the client they were working out. It's never safe to assume anything about anyone — so be sure that you're communicating openly with your colleagues and clients and keeping each other abreast of changes and updates.

3. Hold Yourself Accountable

If you've been thrown under the bus and there is some truth behind it, own it. Hold yourself accountable for the things you could have done better or more efficiently. And communicate that. You can say that, while the campaign's failure to launch isn't your fault, you could have done X, Y or Z to help push it along or to check in on it when you noticed it was falling behind schedule. This is a respectable, professional move that will actually show your willingness to learn from a situation and grow.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.

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