What to Do When Someone Takes Credit for Your Work
You remember it all so clearly. You were pouring coffee into your favorite mug at work one morning when all of a sudden it hit you: your great idea to reach a new, untapped market for an underselling product. Excited about the possibilities, you rushed back to your desk and used the few minutes you had before your next meeting to type up your thoughts and check a few facts and figures online. A coworker joined you as you walked to the conference room and you bounced your idea off him. You said you were hoping to have a fleshed out draft ready to run by your boss next week. Your coworker didn’t seem that impressed with your amazing idea but, ok, whatever.
Or, you thought he wasn’t that impressed. You thought that until the next day, when you were both sitting in your department sales meeting and your manager brought up that worrisome, underperforming product. That’s when you heard your coworker – that guy – say, “I was thinking. What if we…” and proceeded to roll out your idea, in grand fashion, as if it was all his. In shock and unclear on how to handle the situation, you sat there, watching as your boss’ eyes lit up, a lively conversation with the team ensued, and your wonderful idea got assigned to your new arch enemy.
Yes, my friend, you have just been the victim of a workplace theft of the most egregious kind: credit for your work.
It happens more often than you might think. Maybe it wasn’t a stolen idea. Maybe you were asked to “team up” with someone who was confused, disengaged or in myriad other ways, useless. Yet, she still found a way to shine – and you didn’t stop her – when she presented your work as “ours.” If this is the first time it’s happened to you, there are a couple of things you should probably know. First, lucky you. Second, if you want this to be the last time, you need a game plan, now.
Here’s what I recommend:
1. Step away and consider the facts.
As tempting as it may be to pounce the minute you see someone taking the credit you deserve, don’t do it. Publicly calling out a coworker won’t help you maintain or regain your reputation. It will tarnish it. You’ll likely look petty, jealous or mean spirited. None of those are good. But that’s not the only reason to take a few breaths before confronting the person. It’s also to give you a few minutes (or hours) to do a quick fact check with yourself. Are you sure it was all your idea? Did you really think of it while you were pouring coffee? Or were you and your coworker talking about ways to boost product sales and, after a few minutes of hallway brainstorming, you ended up with a great new idea? Was your teammate really a useless slug? Or are you just mad because she stuck you with all of the powerpoint formatting? Be sure you’re sure that this wasn’t just an honest misunderstanding – or an over reaction at a busy time – before you confront anybody. Also, as maddening as the situation might feel, it’s smart to ask yourself another question: how important is this? Do you really want to duke it out over who gets credit for choosing a new font for the PowerPoint presentation? Seriously, you don’t need credit for every little good deed. Sometimes, letting the small stuff go is the best thing you can do for your career. Answering these questions should take less than a day or two, at most. Wait any longer and you let the opportunity to fix the problem rapidly fade away.
2. Have a positive, fair-minded conversation.
If you want this to get better, you need to talk. But proceed with caution. The best advice for a conversation like this is to simply remember the golden rule: how would you want someone to approach you if they thought you had stolen credit from them? Plan your talking points in advance. And be sure to bookend them with honest, positive comments about the person or, if possible, about something you enjoy about working with them. After your brief, complimentary start, move quickly and directly to your concern. “I was hoping we could talk about something that made me uncomfortable during our meeting… I got caught off guard when you brought up the idea about boosting our XYZ sales during the meeting yesterday. I had come up with that idea and was planning to present it, myself, next week. I shared it with you because I really respect your opinion and I wanted to hear your reaction. But we didn’t even end up discussing it. When you brought it up during the meeting, it sounded to the group like it was your idea.” As long as the person doesn’t shut you down, you should proceed, asking if they have a different understanding of what happened. Ideally, you want to come to a joint understanding of what happened, during which your coworker acknowledges what they’ve done and reassures you that it won’t happen again. But, failing that, you want to send a strong, clear message: you know what happened, you’re not afraid to confront it, and you won’t tolerate it going forward.
3. Fix it.
Depending on how well Step 2 went, you should pursue the most appropriate remedy for the circumstances. Are you going to ask your boss send out a group email, clarifying that you actually did all of the formatting on the PowerPoint? No. But if misplaced credit caused you to miss out on an opportunity to lead a new project, you should seek a correction. Let your coworker know how you’d like to see things resolved and ask for their support. But decide beforehand what you’ll do if they refuse. Then do what you need to do. If you know, beyond any doubt, that a coworker has been given the credit and the rewards for work that was yours, gather up all the evidence you have and meet with your boss. State your case, share your evidence and ask for the remedy that seems fair. If you have zero evidence, you may not be able to seek much of a remedy this time. But you can still use the opportunity to set the record straight, note that you’ll be documenting your work more precisely in the future, and ask for her support going forward.