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How to cover your actions at work

To cover your actions (also less appropriately as "to cover your ass") means strategies used to minimize negative criticism and undue responsibility for failure. It is an important part of the workplace social dynamic as you do not want to take responsibility for the mistakes of others. An extreme instance of why C.Y.A tactics are crucial is when someone at your workplace makes a massive error and promptly diverts the blame on you – at worst this can lead to your dismissal irrespective of how much you try to explain it or how well you have actually performed your own tasks.

I dislike the entire concept of C.Y.A as it involves a toxic mindset of constantly considering responsibility and even thinking who is to blame if not you – from an ideal perspective this far from optimal as having to actively consider your legitimacy clearly distracts from the actual tasks at hand.

For the purposes of this article, to cover your actions also refers to adopting certain habits that maintain your expertise and ensure that the quality of your work is constant – you can be dismissed even in cases of utmost care and control, so you want to remain qualified both on paper and in practice in case you end up as a job applicant. Please also note that this article does not cover any C.Y.A tactics of malign intent.

Table of Contents

Strategy 1: Always get it in writing

Regardless of the gravity of the task, it is very useful to get your requests in writing, especially when it is work delegated to you by a co-worker working on the same project. This record-keeping proves especially useful in situations where a colleague forgets to carry out a task they promised to help you with or take care for you.

However, the execution of getting most (or everything) in writing is slightly challenging. You may come off as strange requesting everything to be "in written format", so a much better approach is to say "Hey, can you write me the details really briefly through an email and I'll get to it asap." or "I'll send you a mail with short instructions on what needs to be done". Don't forget to include important contextual phrases like "Here are the details that I promised earlier" "Thank you so much for promising to help." If the project goes haywire an email chain is always much easier and reliable to backtrack than verbal claims and promises, especially when the writing style and context of the email indicate that there has been a previous conversation (and a subsequent promise) to handle the task.

Strategy 2: Is being busy a feasible strategy to avoid responsibility?

This is the classic reason given at work to avoid responsibility and the potential fallout: You cannot do a requested proofread of an important document or do research on a customer if you just state that you're "too busy with what you've got right now". This is very true, if your lack of time is due to the quality and priority of your work. If your current task is of supreme importance such as creating something for a client on a tight schedule or doing something crucial that your superior delegated to you with a quickly looming deadline, you're too busy. But many people fall into the trap of creating almost arbitrary small tasks that fill up the schedule but are far from essential.

A good example of being busy due to quantity reasons is that you've made up too many small blocks that make your schedule cluttered: "I need to research work-life balance for my article, then edit yesterday's article, then check next week's article for grammar mistakes, and so forth." It is an entirely different scenario if you're working on a team and the work of the group is dependent on your immediate progress, but work tasks aren't often ranked based on quality and priority.

So, does it work as a C.Y.A move? If you're busy with an actual task that deserves to take precedence, sure. But if you are busy just for the sake of being busy your superior will know instantly, as illustrated by the following example:

Strategy 3: State your best intentions

Now that your work task prioritization is sorted out, it is time to focus on the reasoning of your actions. Please avoid using the verbs "assume" and "think" in the context of "I assumed that the task was already taken care of" or an equivalent statement. You are not in the wrong stating this but a superior way of expressing yourself exists – let me explain.

We humans are generally very intelligent creatures that do a lot of split-second processing in the context of decision-making. With the lack of time for a more scientific formulation, this process can also be linked to intuition, and it is often very useful in dangerous situations or other cases where quick reaction is needed. Your preliminary assumption regarding a task at work was probably a smart one and the logical choice for many, only it happened to be false. A better way to convey your message is to use the phrase "It was my understanding that...". This phrase is much cleaner and implies that there was concise reasoning behind your actions, whereas "I assumed" or "I thought" gives off the impression of a very casual jump to a conclusion without further evaluation.

Having the quality of straightforwardness is also a very crucial asset of being a reliable worker: if you're always disinclined to give out details or point at someone else you don't come off as honest – own up to your mistakes as work is a constant learning curve. You need to state to your superior that you tried your best and there is nothing more you can do.

Some words on behavioral tips

I've divided this article into two sections as these following behavioral tips are not active tools to decrease, avoid or track responsibility, but instead they are advice more pertinent to your integrity and general nature as a worker. This advice is relevant to the traits of an honest and ambitious worker, something which is crucial in the context of considerations for blame or dismissal. If someone asks to describe you in just a few words, you would ideally want anyone to consider you hardworking, honest, and ambitious – or some similar equivalent at least.

Behavioral 1: You represent the company

This is almost self-explanatory but you need to realize that you represent the company in 100 % of the things you do, from statements to actions. This is not a common problem as employers cannot dictate their employees' opinions, but be very cautious with what kind of informal statements you put out on social media, for instance. Companies want to generally minimize all risks of PR disasters, so the dismissal of the offender is the quickest way to escape such a scenario.

One of the first examples of this in the yet brief history of global social media was the firing of a PR executive Justine Sacco in 2013 over a tweet that was in very poor taste. Was her statement extremely inconsiderate? Definitely. Should she have had a chance to apologize and redeem herself? Possibly. As she tweeted the controversial message just before boarding a flight, she only found out about her dismissal after getting off the plane after the 11-hour flight. I do not want to get into the political side of things but dialogue is extremely crucial in these situations. Looking at this from a worker's perspective, it must be exceedingly difficult to find a new job as a PR executive after having recently been involved in an almost global outrage – As candidates are thoroughly screened in the interview process, such an error will stall career development massively.

Behavioral 2: Look like a good worker on paper

This is very fundamental though quite apparent in building your credibility. Make sure you're reliable by arriving to work at a consistent time every day and week, being consistent with the results of your work and contributing to the team as a cooperative co-worker. All in all, these are very elementary traits of a solid and reliable worker. Be consistent and it will build your integrity – if you're a good worker on paper, it will be harder to critique you.

Behavioral 3: Act with genuine interest

I find that genuine interest in general is a very important aspect of work motivation and your identity as a worker. Many believe that having genuine interest in your work is not useful or that it is even useless (very dependent on your job, naturally) but I disagree. Nearly all jobs develop you in ways that can be transferred to your next position – when I was a worker at a coffee shop I spent a lot of time refining my skills in customer service, something which was very beneficial to me as I now work in an office environment and interact with various new people every day.

If you can communicate this genuine interest to your superior(s), you will come off as authentic and ambitious. It makes your mistakes look like missteps in the bigger context of you wanting the genuine best for your workplace instead of your errors being interpreted as careless. This is why it is healthy to communicate your aspirations regarding your own self-improvement, team development and overall goals so that you create an impression that you truly care about what you do.

Key takeaways

C.Y.A moves are never something that need to be the main focus. Most workers subconsciously do many of the aforementioned practices such as prioritization and consistency, so there is not much need for improvement. C.Y.A is closely intertwined with the integrity of your work, and in my opinion only record-keeping (having it in writing) is the fundamental aspect of C.Y.A that might be worth separately planning apart from your regular consistency as an employee.

C.Y.A and the associated behavioral consistency form a pyramid structure to support the individual worker in mistakes – a genuine error or a negative result of an unpredictable situation is something that really few people, if any, can completely avoid. Any good employer should be quick to notice that the strength of an employee isn't in the mythical skill of avoiding all negative events – it is instead about rolling with the punches and getting up when you fall.

If you liked this article of the Career Skills: Master the job hunt series, you might find the other posts in the series useful as well!


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