You had a great idea and your colleague tells it to your boss? Your manager presents your work in a meeting without even mentioning you? There’s nothing more frustrating than someone stealing your work. It’s surprisingly common, too—in a survey of 1,000 workers, 47% complained that their bosses took the credit for their ideas. It’s infuriating, of course, but if left unaddressed, this feeling of injustice can lead to anger, resentment and even affect self-esteem. Here we investigate how to handle a “work theft”—and make sure it never happens again.
Sarah, a manager in a healthcare company, was hoping to be promoted to the position of director when the CEO hired someone else. “The new director would come and see me all the time for informal discussions in my office. There were no formal meetings where notes were taken,” she said. After several months of this, Sarah was talking with the CEO one day who said, “You know, Chris has had a wonderful idea, which is xxx”, and Sarah realised it was hers. “I was very upset,” she said. “I recognised that Chris had certain capabilities that qualified him to be a director but I couldn’t stand the fact that he stole my idea.”
Something similar happened to Mary when the architecture firm where she worked asked for a design for the team logo of a softball league. “I started a design on my computer and the three people who sat next to me, including a colleague I will call Mr X, looked on, and we joked as I conceived and drew my idea. I hit send—from my computer to the boss’s computer,” she said.
Mary was working off-site on the day that the designs were judged. Upon entering the office she was told that her “team” won the competition. “When they made the announcement, Mr X had stepped forward and received the award on behalf of the TEAM,” she said. “I was flabbergasted, hurt and incredulous that he would take credit for my work. I asked him what happened. He said I was not present and so he accepted it for ‘us’ as a team.”
Having to deal with someone taking credit for your work can be really upsetting and “feel like a slap in the face”, said Melody Wilding, behaviour expert, executive coach, and author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work. If nothing is done about it, this infuriating feeling can evolve into resentment and “even self-doubt, because you may wonder why you are overlooked and underappreciated”, said Wilding.
How to handle the situation
What is the best way to react—and is there anything we should avoid doing at all costs? Here Wilding shares her expert tips:
- Keep calm
The first thing to keep in mind is not to lose your temper when facing a “work theft”. “In the moment, keep calm and set the record straight,” said Wilding. “If someone takes credit for your idea during a meeting, you can chime in and say, ‘It was great collaborating on the project John mentioned. While his team led execution, our team was responsible for strategy and we’re so happy with the results.’”
- Appeal to their sense of fairness
Try to make your colleague understand that all you want is for things to be fair. Wilding advises saying something along the lines of: “I’m sure you’ve been in situations when someone represented your idea as their own. So you know it doesn’t feel good! I hope you understand that’s the position I’m in right now and understand how I feel. What would you do if you were in my shoes?”
- Lash out
The worst way to deal with the situation is to immediately attack the person, explained Wilding. “You run the risk of making a false accusation and ruining your reputation. More importantly, you most likely won’t feel good about reacting that way.”
It’s best to give yourself time to “process your own emotions” and “to cool off so you can gain perspective and look at the situation with a clearer head”.
- Assume your colleague deliberately stole your idea
Wilding says it’s important to always assume the best intent. “It’s likely that your colleague was unaware you were involved in a certain initiative or it may have simply slipped their mind to give you credit amid the other details they had to discuss,” she said. “Acknowledge this to them, and give them the benefit of the doubt.”
It is still important to set a boundary. Wilding suggests you should say something like: “I realise there’s a lot to cover in these meetings and it’s easy to leave names off the deck. However, going forward, please make sure to credit me on the slides.”
How to make sure it doesn’t happen again
What if my colleagues keep taking credit for my work?
Okay, so your colleague stole your work once, but what should you do if it happens again? According to Wilding, “if talking to your colleague directly doesn’t work, you may have to issue a sterner warning and state that if it happens again, you will escalate to the appropriate parties.” This might mean bringing the issue to your manager, “who can use their influence to enforce change”. In this case, Wilding says that it is essential to document these instances and your conversations. Indeed, “You’ll want a record should you have to bring the matter up with HR.”
Make sure you get the credit you deserve
Self-promotion is an essential skill for success in the workplace, says Wilding. “You have to be vocal about your ideas and achievements or you risk others stealing them as their own.”
There are two ways to make yourself heard, according to the executive coach.
- Try to speak up early during meetings. “Early speakers are seen as more competent, and it ensures you express your idea before it’s taken.”
- Add an “accomplishments” section to your one-on-one meeting with your boss. This will ensure that “they are in the loop with what you’re working on and can support you should someone else take credit”.
When Sarah’s director stole her idea, she decided to keep quiet, but she made sure it never happened again by always sharing her ideas in front of several people. Eventually, she left to set up her own company. “I saw that the director and the CEO were so close and I thought there was no point in discrediting Chris,” she said. “I knew I had good ideas so my best option was to leave and that gave me the confidence to start my own business.”
As for Mary, she never had to face another “work theft” again, but when she tried to remind her boss that the design on the softball team shirt was her work, she says he never believed her. Regardless of the outcome, it’s important to address the issue if you want to maintain a healthy relationship with your colleagues and be happy at work.
You may believe the wheel turns in life, but you can’t just ignore someone stealing your work. It can have a negative impact on you and the way you feel in the office. Stay calm no matter what and speak out on the matter. This may even make you realise that the way your colleague acted was unintentional—or at the very least it will prevent them from taking all the credit again!
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