You’re in a team meeting, talking about a project that your entire department is working on. Your boss is making an announcement and says, “Sophie had a great idea to streamline our processes…”
Your manager then launches into an explanation of how your team is going to switch things up.
Normally, you’d be thrilled for Sophie and her obviously brilliant contributions. There’s only one problem: that wasn’t actually Sophie’s idea — it was yours. In fact, you just shared it with her yesterday when you were both getting your mid-morning coffee refill in the break room.
Sophie avoids eye contact, and your stomach plummets into your shoes. Now what? What recourse do you have in this sort of scenario? You don’t want to seem petty or like a tattletale, but you also want the recognition that you deserve at work.
Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens to almost everybody, and it’s a difficult situation to navigate. Below are some tips for how to deal when someone else puts their own name on your work or idea.
1. Understand the Intent
You’re irritated, which means your initial reaction is to assume that Sophie is out to get you. Clearly she’s out to elevate her own career — while sabotaging yours in the process.
That knee jerk reaction is understandable, but it’s ultimately not your best starting point. Instead, you’re better off taking some time to understand exactly what’s happening here.
Was this really malicious on Sophie’s part? Or is this all just a big misunderstanding? Is the reason she’s avoiding eye contact because she feels uncomfortable about the mixup too — but doesn’t have the gumption to correct your boss’ mistake in front of everybody?
Maybe your initial assumption will be correct and she really is just stealing your ideas. But either way, it’s important that you get clear on the details of the situation before you bust in and put your foot down.
It’s important that you get clear on the details of the situation before you bust in and put your foot down.
2. Ask a Question
OK, but how exactly do you find out more about what’s happening here? Well, you’ll want to ask some clarifying questions.
It’s tempting to start with accusations and finger-pointing, but as the Harvard Business Review noted, asking questions will help you get a better sense of what’s actually happening — without seemingly overly aggressive.
Let’s stick with our Sophie example. Rather than jumping right in with, “Wait a minute, that was my idea!” try asking something like, “Sophie, is this the process change we were talking about over coffee yesterday?” You can ask this question directly in that team meeting or one-on-one with Sophie — whatever suits you best.
Asking a question like this one puts the ball back in her court. If she responds by saying, “Yes, you were actually the one who came up with this original idea!” then the whole issue is resolved right then and there. You get the credit you deserve.
But, if she instead responds with a simple “yes” or “no” (or worse, flat-out denies your contribution), then you know there’s actually ill intent involved here.
3. Approach the Person Directly
Sophie didn’t take the opportunity to give credit where credit was due, and now you’re fuming. You’re clenching your jaw and balling up your fists under the table, and it’s taking every inch of willpower you have not to make a scene in that meeting.
In reality, you could speak up right away and assert that it was actually your idea in the first place. However, be forewarned that approach isn’t always well-received — especially if you don’t have any sort of proof on hand.
Instead, like so many other workplace conflicts, it’s better to address this directly with the other person. So, following that meeting, pull Sophie aside and lay your perspective out for her. Here’s an example of what that could look like:
Hey, Sophie. I wanted to talk to you about what happened in today’s team meeting. Karen seemed to think that process improvement was your idea, when I think we both know that I just talked through that suggestion with you yesterday. I appreciate that you thought it was a great idea, but it’s important to me that I get credit for my own work and contributions. Can we talk about how to make this right?
Hopefully, your colleague will be willing to engage in a conversation about how you can be recognized for your idea — whether it’s having her email the entire team to applaud your idea or approaching your boss for a conversation together.
You have the flexibility to figure out the way forward that works best for you. But, from experience, taking this more direct approach usually works out better than being passive aggressive or going directly to your supervisor.
4. Know When It’s Time to Loop in Your Boss
With that said, it’s important to recognize when it’s time to appeal to a higher power. Perhaps this has been a continued issue, and Sophie continues to steal your ideas. Or maybe she’s unwilling to engage in a conversation with you about the incident, and it’s important to you that this doesn’t slip by unnoticed.
If you’ve tried to handle the situation yourself to no avail, then request a meeting with your manager when you can lay out the problem. You can explain that you don’t want to seem greedy or petty, but that you care about your job and your ideas and want to ensure you’re always associated with them.
This conversation will be extra impactful if you can come with any sort of proof of your original work or ideas — whether it’s a dated email that mentions your suggestion or some notes you took when mapping out that proposal.
From there, it’s up to your boss to figure out the best way to respond. But at least you can rest easy with the knowledge that you stood your ground and took credit for your own contributions.
5. Add Additional Value
Here’s one final tip to put your name on your own ideas, without needing to be overly direct or aggressive: come prepared with additional information.
Even if one of your coworkers is the first one to speak up about the idea (ahem, your idea), being the one with supporting data, facts, anecdotes, and examples makes it clear who has ownership of that idea — even if you aren’t the one who first pitched it.
Being the one with supporting data, facts, anecdotes, and examples makes it clear who has ownership of that idea — even if you aren’t the one who first pitched it.
So, if you have something to add, speak up and do so. You’ll engage in the process, while also subtly making it obvious that you know more about that suggestion than the person who stole it from you.
If you’ve ever had someone take credit for your ideas at work, you already know how frustrating it is. And it’s also not an easy situation to respond to — after all, you’re trying to preserve your reputation in the office, not damage it.
Fortunately, you can get the credit you deserve without seeming like an overeager know-it-all. Put these tips to work and you’ll be well on your way to getting recognition for your own contributions.