Dealing with Workplace Betrayal – Part 2

workplace, betrayal, trust

What to Do When Someone Steals Credit for an Idea.

This is the second in a 4-part series on the all-too common occurrence of workplace betrayal.   The first post dealt with the workplace tattle, how to eliminate his or her power over you, to repair the damage done by a tattle-tale, and the best way to confront the tattler without causing more harm to you and your workplace reputation .  Today’s post is about theft — not stealing from petty cash or absconding with trade secrets.  Today’s post is about the Oxford Dictionary’s second definition of “betray” — “To hurt someone who trusts you by doing something morally wrong,” or as that conduct typically shows up in the workplace — stealing credit.  

The Hypothetical Betrayal

Let’s say you’ve been working for days on an individual proposal or initiative.  You tell your best workplace friend about it and, BAM, she raises the idea as hers at the next meeting. Unless her idea is truly different from yours, your colleague’s conduct is theft.  She’s not stealing from the company.  She is stealing the benefit you expected from your good idea in terms of recognition and reward.  You trusted her.  She hurt you by doing something morally wrong.

We all recognize and prefer the benefits of working in an openly collaborative workplace.  Some people just don’t play by the rules.  The goal here is to get credit for your own work while doing your best to repair the relationship with your colleague — all without looking like a whiny baby.  That is no small task.  

Stand Up For Yourself Without Committing Political Suicide

On a personal note, I know we are supposed to turn the other cheek when someone betrays us.  While I do believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, I think most of us have a hard time putting up with the feeling of being cheated at work.  Rather than go with your first impulse to internalize anger or to engage in a career killing tantrum, there are some positive steps you can take to stand up for yourself.  My suggestion is to diagram just what happened.

  • If your idea is on paper and you can prove your idea predates the meeting, remind your colleague of the prior conversation and tell her that you believe her work is a copy.  Ask her to explain how her idea is different from or predates yours.
  • If she establishes that her idea is different or predates yours — in any way — forget it. That’s just how things go. That doesn’t mean your work should be abandoned. Find a way that your work can add value to hers.

Office Politics:  

    • When you present your work, mention that you and your friend were working separately but along the same lines, and describe how your idea builds upon, or adds value to hers, or looks at the idea from a different angle.
    • Be kind and politically wise.  Unless you can demonstrate a tangible substantive way in which your idea is an improvement, do not describe your work or idea as better.  
  • If her idea is different but derivative of yours, tell her that when it is time to present your idea, you will point out how it works with hers. While you will refrain from pointing out that her idea is derivative of yours, you expect her to own up to the fact that she would not have developed her idea without hearing of yours first.

Office Politics:  

    • If she does not agree to do so, you might tell her that you will let your supervisor know privately.  This is not revenge.  The purpose is to make sure that the supervisor does not think that your idea is derivative of hers, which is only fair.
    • You are offering her a chance to appear collaborative rather than greedy.
  • If she cannot articulate a difference between the ideas, ask her for a document that establishes her idea predates yours.  If she cannot, you have a choice:  (1) tell her that you consider her conduct a betrayal of trust and that you will not hesitate in reporting her if it happens again; or (2) report it.

Office Politics:  

    • If you elect the latter, you better be darn sure that you can prove the genesis and start date of your own idea.  If there is any doubt, don’t.
    • If you elect to report your colleague, don’t let the grass grow under your feet.  Consider inviting the colleague to the meeting with your mutual supervisor.  As cynical as it sounds, you don’t want to give the idea-thief time to generate evidence or meet with the supervisor before you.

Many years ago, at the very start of my career, I told a workplace friend about an idea I was working on.  Instead of waiting for me to complete my planning and present the idea myself, she spontaneously previewed my idea to our mutual supervisor in a hallway discussion.  Because she did not fully understand the idea or its benefits, she botched the elevator pitch and the supervisor shut it down.

Two very valuable lessons were learned that day:  My colleague learned that “You never open your mouth until you know what the shot is.(Glengarry Glen Ross) and I learned that you hold the key to your own privacy.  If you don’t want your idea “stoled, sold or told,” keep your mouth shut.


Part 3:  Dealing with Workplace Betrayal, What to Do When You Are the Center of Gossip. 

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Mary Wright

Mary Wright is the Founding Editor of HR Gazette, an online magazine for HR professionals and employment lawyers. She is an employment lawyer with 25+ years' experience in helping employers reach workable business solutions to complex human resource problems. She is currently a Shareholder with Ogletree Deakins and the firm's former General Counsel. Connect with Mary.


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