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Being Thrown Under The Bus: The Dilemma of Blame

This last week, I got pulled back into a Hewlett-Packard Enterprise ($HPE) news cycle. Last Thursday, the UK courts ruled there was fraud by Autonomy, their CEO and CFO related to its acquisition by HPE. When HPE wrote down $8.8 billion against the acquisition in 2012, HPE executive leadership got b

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
4 min read
An image showing the words Blame and Responsibility
Throwing someone under the bus is the dilemma between blame and responsibility

This last week, I got pulled back into a Hewlett-Packard Enterprise ($HPE) news cycle. Last Thursday, the UK courts ruled there was fraud by Autonomy, their CEO and CFO related to its acquisition by HPE. When HPE wrote down $8.8 billion against the acquisition in 2012, HPE executive leadership got busy throwing HP staff under the bus to avoid being held accountable. The famous quote that caused me to grant interviews to the press back in 2012 was, “Those responsible for the Autonomy deal are gone.” Leadership action affected teammates I respected and who were not responsible for the CEO and the board's poor decisions. I had to say something, and I did.

This week's announcement caused the press, and others to reach out for my opinion. This caused me to reflect on HPE's willingness back then to throw teammates under the bus to avoid blame. Thus the topic for this week's essay.

Being Thrown Under The Bus

Some people are more than willing to “throw others under the bus” rather than take the blame for any mistake. The phrase “being thrown under the bus” has its origins in hockey. It was first used by player Eddie Shore to refer to someone getting stomped on by an opposing team member. The phrase later became popular in the business world, where it is often used to describe someone who others are blaming for a mistake or error.

Some examples of people getting thrown under the bus include: a CEO blaming his assistant for a mistake, or another company shifting the blame for an error to their third-party vendors. While being thrown under the bus gets rationalized as a noble effort to save face or protect other people, it damages relationships and creates an environment of mistrust.

Culture and People

An organization where leaders throw people under the bus is one where the culture is one of blame and no accountability. If leaders feel they will be punished, more harshly than those around them, it is often easier for them to blame someone else and try to avoid punishment themselves. In other cases, this may happen because the person in a leadership position doesn't feel as though the person they are throwing under the bus is valuable to their success and has no problem sacrificing them for personal gain.

After Being Thrown Under The Bus

When thrown under the bus, the person sacrificed feels betrayed and alone. This can be especially true if the person who threw them under the bus was someone in a position of authority or someone they looked up to. It's difficult to know what to do next when this happens. Some people may choose to confront the person. Others may choose to move on and avoid that person altogether. No matter what route they chose, it is important to remember that they did not deserve the treatment they received.

No one ever wants to be blamed for a mistake, especially if it's a high-profile one. And yet, when leaders face this situation, they often find themselves in a difficult dilemma: do they take the blame and risk looking bad, or do they throw someone else under the bus in order to save themselves?

The Affect On The Organizations

When leaders try to throw employees under the bus, it can cause a dangerous storm of anger and frustration within an organization. Made worse when the person throwing people under the bus does so without even acknowledging their mistake or apologizing for their actions.

In unorganized organizations, throwing employees under the bus may work because it creates a sense of chaos and allows the leader to maintain control. However, in well-structured organizations, this type of behavior will only lead to more problems. This is because well-structured organizations operate on trust and respect, which are two of the key components that are destroyed when leaders sacrifice someone unfairly.

What Can You Do When You See It?

When you see someone throwing others under the bus, it is important to say something. This can be difficult to do, but it is important for the victims' sake and for the organization's health. By saying something, you can help to stop the cycle of blame and allow people to take responsibility for their own actions.

What Is The Alternative?

In contrast to throwing someone under the bus, the “buck stops here” mentality is one where leaders don't look for scapegoats when things go wrong. President Harry S. Truman, who had it inscribed on his desk in the Oval Office, popularized it. The phrase means stepping up and taking care of things when they go wrong instead of blaming others. This creates an atmosphere of trust where people feel safe making mistakes.

Great Leaders

Great leaders understand the importance of taking responsibility for their actions. They set the tone for an organization that values integrity and accountability. By admitting when they're wrong and taking ownership of their actions, leaders show that they're willing to do what it takes to make things right. This sends a simple message to employees that they can trust their leaders to make the right decisions and take responsibility for their actions.


Throwing someone under the bus is done with little to no consideration of the consequences. It does not solve problems. It only creates more trouble by spreading discontent and fueling frustration within the organization.

When you see it happening in your organization or in the public (e.g. government, press, school, etc.), step up and say something to stop the cycle of blame and create a greater sense of accountability. Throwing someone under the bus is a common yet ineffective practice that must stop. Only then can you build a culture of integrity and accountability.

When it comes to blame, there is no one more ruthless than a leader willing to throw others under the bus.
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Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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