In the course of our jobs, we'll make our share of mistakes, and it's how we deal with them that can spell the difference between a smooth recovery and long-term repercussions. Generally speaking, it's best to own up to your mistakes at work rather than make excuses for them. Doing so shows a degree of professional maturity that not everyone has, and it's something your manager will appreciate even in the face of a blunder.
But what happens when your boss sits you down and calls you out for a mistake you didn't make? That situation is trickier. You don't want to throw the person who's really at fault under the bus, because in doing so, you might not only look petty, but you may also jeopardize your relationship with the colleague you rat out. On the other hand, you shouldn't have to take the blame and look bad for something you didn't do. Here's how to handle this type of scenario -- and still come out OK.
1. Consider the importance of the issue at play
Whether to even bother considering telling your boss what really happened should boil down to how big a mistake you're dealing with. If the issue is easily remedied or likely to blow over in a day or two, then you may be better off staying silent and working with your manager to fix it. Will you technically be taking the blame for something you didn't do? Yes. But if it's not the sort of thing that will affect your career or hurt your chances of getting a promotion or raise, then you may be best off just letting it go.
2. Ask to review the incident as a team
If you're dealing with a more significant blunder, and one that could have a lasting impact on your career, then you'll want to take steps to set the record straight. A good way to do that is to tell your boss that you feel there's been a misunderstanding as to what transpired, and that you'd like to sit down and review the situation as a team. This way, you're not shifting the blame to a specific person and making yourself look bad in the process. Rather, you're asking to get everyone involved in the hopes that whoever dropped the ball will fess up.
3. Approach your colleague privately
If you have a good relationship with the co-worker whose mistake you're getting blamed for, you might skip the group meeting and instead approach that colleague directly for help. Relay the discussion you had with your boss, make it clear that you did not shift the blame, and ask your co-worker to step up and take responsibility for his error. If your co-worker is a decent person, he or she will probably offer to do that without being asked. If your co-worker gets defensive, gently explain that while you don't want to be a tattletale, your reputation shouldn't have to suffer over something you didn't do.
4. When all else fails, bust out the evidence
If, despite your best efforts, you're unable to get the person at fault to clear your name, and the issue is a serious one, it's time to take action. If you have evidence that you weren't to blame, the easiest thing is to present it to your boss and explain that while you didn't want to have to rat someone out, you gave your colleague ample opportunity to do the right thing, and your colleague didn't. If you don't have evidence, you may need to let the matter go. It's unfortunate, but at that point, it's your word against somebody else's, and if your boss was already inclined to blame you, you're likely to have a hard time convincing him otherwise.
Getting called out by your manager for someone else's mistakes is never fun, so perhaps the best thing you can do is document your work so that in the future, there's no confusion over what you did or didn't do. This especially holds true when it comes to major projects where the stakes are high. Of course, there's a fine line between covering your bases and getting paranoid, but when your reputation is on the line, you do what you have to do.