by Ashley Mancill, Senior Assistant, INALJ Alabama
Credit Thieves: How to Protect Your Work and Ideas
Most professionals over the course of their careers will likely have the unpleasant and aggravating experience of someone else taking credit for their work or ideas. Sometimes it is as simple as a supervisor not being aware of an employee’s accomplishments, especially if that employee works in a self-starting environment or his or her manager favors a hands-off approach to management. More often than not, however, others intentionally take credit for their colleagues or employees’ work. Oftentimes people aren’t sure how to handle the situation or may be reluctant to even bring it up in a conversation for fear of being perceived as confrontational or insubordinate if the offender is higher up on the pay scale. But not addressing the problem can lead to built-up resentment or, if it is reoccurring, cause hardworking and creative employees to become discouraged and even disengaged. Instead of avoiding the situation, be assertive and tackle the problem professionally.
The first thing to do is to take a breath and assess the situation. It’s possible that there was some sort of misunderstanding and taking the offensive without taking the time to reflect and resolve the issue tactfully may damage your image and potentially your career. Think carefully about how much you contributed to the project or assignment. If the concept was wholly yours and you did all of the work, then you deserve to be acknowledged for your efforts. If you enlisted the help of others or worked as part of a team, then everyone involved deserves to be recognized, even if you were the one who came up with the idea.
Once you have reflected on your contributions, consider why your coworker or supervisor accepted credit for your work. As previously mentioned, it could be a simple mistake. Your manager most likely has a lot on his or her plate and is simply unaware of the work you did. A quick chat can rectify the situation. Still, don’t discount the possibility of someone’s hidden agenda. There are managers and coworkers who knowingly take credit in an attempt to demonstrate how valuable they are to their managers or to the company (especially if operations and company performance hasn’t been great and a round of layoffs is looming). There are also some individuals who feel threatened by their colleagues or employees’ talent and success. Often these people are insecure and feel incompetent by comparison, and in an effort to hide these feelings, they may take credit for another person’s work.
Despite what you think is the reason or motive behind your colleague or manger’s actions, speaking with him or her is the only way you can get a true understanding of the situation. Ask your coworker or supervisor if he or she has time to discuss a work-related matter. Do not open the conversation with an accusation. Start by noting the success or buy-in to the project, presentation, or idea and then mention your contribute to it. Share how you felt when you were not credited for your part and listen carefully to what the other person has to say. If he or she responds negatively and the situation escalates, be prepared to talk to your supervisor, your manager’s supervisor (if applicable), or someone in human resources. Although this may cause a little anxiety, informing someone in a higher position of what is going on nearly almost ensures that this kind of behavior will stop. It is also a way of making your supervisor or a higher-up aware of your skills and talents, which could benefit you in the future. If you have to speak to any of these three individuals, make sure to bring documentation of your work or contribution with you to the meeting as well as any notes on the conversation between you and the offender. Give anyone else who is aware of the work you did a head’s up that he or she may be asked to verify your claims.
Regardless of whether this is a one-time or reoccurring incident, get in the habit of documenting your work in whatever way you can. Put proposals to your supervisor or team in writing or, if using email, copy coworkers and supervisors who may play a role in its conception or execution. If someone suggests that you spearhead a project or give a presentation, get it in writing. Keep outlines, drafts, checklists, etc., to show that you went through a process and check computer documents and presentations for time stamps and authorship (the latter only applies if the software is licensed to you specifically). If someone attempts to take credit for the work you did, you will have a record showing otherwise.
These types of incidents happen and how you handle them reflects your professionalism and overall character. While it’s probably best not to seek accolades for every accomplishment, make sure you’re recognized for the successes that have the greatest impact on your organization and highlight your skills and talents.