Early in his career, teacher Ken Maas was working as a clerk in a large San Francisco law firm. It was his responsibility to set up the conference room for an early morning call and meeting with one of the managing partners. But a colleague had missed providing an essential piece of equipment for the meeting. The partner was upset and demanded to know what had happened.

“My first reaction was to say, ‘It wasn’t my fault’,” recalled Maas. But instead he took the blame and said that he would take care of the problem right away. After the meeting was over, Maas got called into the partner’s office. “I was sure I was going to get fired,” he said. Instead, she praised him and told him that she really appreciated what he had done.

Taking the fall for someone else at work is more common than one might think. In a recent survey from OfficeTeam, a global temporary staffing company based in California, 30% of 1,000 senior managers surveyed in the US said they have accepted the blame at work for something that wasn’t their fault. Thirty-four percent of those who took the rap said they did so because they felt indirectly responsible for the problem, while 28% said that they didn’t want to get others in trouble. A separate survey was conducted with Canadian managers and the numbers were even higher: 47% of senior managers said that they had accepted the blame for something that wasn’t their fault.

Fine line

“It's understandable that professionals occasionally cover for their co-workers, but it’s best not to make this a frequent habit,” said Robert Hosking, OfficeTeam’s executive director. Repeatedly taking the fall could hurt your reputation; colleagues might view you as a pushover and continue to blame you for things since they know they can get away with it; and the person for whom you took the fall won’t learn from his or her mistake.

Also, if you are being considered for a promotion or are thought of as a “high potential” employee, taking the fall could damage your career advancement opportunities, according to Al Stewart, founder of Business Mentors with offices in Atlanta and Paris. “You’ll find that such a move can be very ‘career limiting’ as it can affect the organisation’s perception of your abilities, your readiness and your judgment,” he said. 

Your best move is to be proactive. Take preventative measures to make clear who is responsible for what when it comes to a project or assignment. Get the division of labour in writing and save all emails that refer to who is responsible for what. This will “ensure the blame won’t be incorrectly pinned on you,” said Hosking. Make sure that expectations have been clearly outlined for every project. “Document each person’s responsibilities and contributions so there’s accountability,” he said.

Sometimes, of course, taking the blame just feels like the right thing to do. And that’s okay, according to Bob Burg, author of Adversaries Into Allies: Win People Over Without Manipulation or Coercion. It all depends on your motivation.

“As a leader, accepting responsibility for one of your team members is not uncommon,” said Burg. “Great leaders or potential leaders are often known for giving credit for victories to their team members and taking blame for defeat.”

Doing so can help earn the respect and loyalty of those on your team.

Likewise, depending on the circumstances, an underling might do well to take the blame for a supervisor, according to Stewart. “Perhaps the boss has done something that was a poor move or the boss has failed to deliver on a project,” he said. “The boss is protected: he can blame the employee, but he can also minimise the impact based on the employee’s good record or potential.  But, most importantly, the boss now ‘owes’ the employee, and this can be a very productive political move for the employee in the future.”

Stewart said he has seen many promotions come as a result of paybacks for favours like these.

Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at careercoach@bbc.com.

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