What To Do When a Coworker Steals Credit for Your Work

By Melody Wilding '11SW of the Columbia Career Coaches Network
Originally published on Forbes.com

You're sitting in a meeting and a coworker takes credit for your idea. Or maybe you stay late to finish a project, but your name is left off of the final presentation. Your boss grabs the limelight and accepts all the praise.

Even if you work in a company that encourages collaboration, some people still go too far and inappropriately monopolize work as their own, never crediting others.

It's infuriating when someone blatantly rips off your ideas. It feels wrong. Unfair. You want justice and may even feel a little victimized.

How should you handle these situations? You may be torn between a desire to seek revenge and letting it go altogether. Should you jump in as soon as possible to reclaim your project? Or retreat and hope it's a one-time thing?

Whether intentional or an honest oversight, colleagues may take credit where it isn't due. Here are seven tips to respond like a professional.

1. Tune into your reaction, then mine those emotions in positive ways.

You care about your job, so when someone steals your idea it's natural to be upset. There’s no right or wrong way to feel. In fact, your emotions may sway from disgust to defeat.

The first step is to notice what arises for you. Developing the self-awareness to deal with the emotions that come up and act on them constructively is key. This might mean taking time to calm down, perhaps by channeling your anger into a sweat-breaking workout. For others, it may involve processing hurt or disappointment by talking with a mentor or journaling.

 2. Get your boundaries firmly in place (the sooner, the better).

Don't stew—only bringing it up a month later. So much can happen during that time that it's possible your co-worker may not even remember the incident.

It's also completely okay to stand up for yourself in the moment. Taking action in the moment creates a strong boundary that will pay off in the future. If someone takes credit for your ideas in a meeting you can say, "That's exactly the strategy I suggested we try yesterday. Let's revisit the plans."

3. Talk solutions, not trash.

If you confront the person directly, start by asking questions instead of making accusations. This shifts the burden of proof to the offending party, who then will have to explain why they took credit for the project or idea.

You might say something like: "I noticed that when you talked about the project in the meeting earlier this week, you said ‘I’ instead of ‘we.’ Can you tell me why you framed it that way?" You’ll be making it clear you noticed, and that it wasn’t right.

Of course, no matter how you approach the conversation, the person may also deny it happened, suggest she may do it again, or imply that she did it to undermine you. If the conversation heads in this direction, then you’ll need to involve your supervisors. Just remember you’ll need evidence that the work or idea was actually yours.

4. Don't shy away from self-promotion.

In today's workplace there tends to be a huge emphasis on teams. As a result, many professionals never learn how to promote themselves in a healthy way.  

Here’s a simple place to start: when you discuss the project, use personal pronouns. You might say, "Thanks, I'm glad you liked my work. I stayed late yesterday to finish and I think it paid off."

5. Future-proof your ideas.

Talk with your boss before beginning work on a project. Create a plan for getting buy-in for the initiative across the company. Set expectations by posing questions like:

  • How will we build support for our idea?
  • Who are the project owners? Who oversees responsibility—and for which tasks?
  • When will we present these ideas to senior management?
  • Who will answer questions and be responsible for follow-up?

Keep the door open to revisit these agreements. The contribution structure you're planning on can sometimes change. It works well to email a chart detailing exactly who's going to be responsible for what.

6. Become an idea-generator

Consider sharing your best ideas by explaining them to groups instead of to one colleague. Document them in memos and emails. Even invite others to add to and develop the ideas. Then you'll have the opportunity to acknowledge and thank your coworkers for their input.

In doing so, you'll draw attention as an innovator and get known around the office for being gracious and inclusive. You'll earn a reputation as a go-to for creativity, originality, and ingenuity. What could be better?

 7. Be generous about sharing credit yourself.

Much like great CEOs model leadership behavior, your co-workers are more likely to give a nod to your great ideas if you're generous about sharing credit yourself. 

If you manage a team, play the role of a coach. Encourage your team to think of opportunities for getting their work recognized. One idea is to add a slide at the end of a presentation giving credit to your team (just make sure you get to that slide if you're pressed for time!).

When you work in a fast-paced, competitive work environment, ideas are circulating constantly. Like it or not, having someone steal credit is a common occurrence. But there are ways you can respond with poise. In the process you'll hone important skills like communication, negotiation, and self-promotion that'll make you a better leader and set you up for success if this challenge arises again.


Melody Wilding '11SW teaches human behavior at The City University of New York and is a nationally recognized Master Coach who distills psychological insights into actionable career advice. A licensed social worker trained at Columbia University, she's helped thousands of professional women and female entrepreneurs master their mindset and emotions for greater success. Melody has worked with CEOs and executives running top startups along with published authors and media personalities. She can help you identify and remove mental and emotional barriers keeping you from reaching the next level in your career. Learn more about her approach and results at melodywilding.com. If you're interesting in working with Melody one-on-one, get in touch about special private coaching rates for Columbia alumni.


 Learn more about the Columbia Career Coaches Network.

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