What to Do When Your Co-Worker Steals Your Idea

You’ve been working all month on a new idea for your company, and you can’t wait to present it during the next team meeting. Work has been going well, and you’re sure this new project is going to help you earn your next big promotion. The only thing that has been distracting you is one of your co-workers is constantly coming over to your desk to ask you what you’re working on. You don’t think anything of it, so you tell her, and then return to your work. The day of the meeting, you’re itching to share your new idea; however, you’re cut off by your co-worker, who proceeds to tell the boss about her new idea. It’s the exact same one you were telling her about a few days ago. What should you do?

Maresa Friedman, founder of The Executive Cat Herder, told The Cheat Sheet it’s necessary to immediately address the problem. “You have determine when, where, and how you first presented the idea and where it’s documented. It’s best to call this type of behavior out in a casual way. For example, say, ‘Hey, I mentioned that at the last meeting — thanks for revisiting it. Maybe we can give it wings,’” Friedman suggested.

Unfortunately, this kind of behavior happens quite often in the workplace. At some point in your career, someone is going to steal your brilliant work idea and pass it off as his or her own. The question is not if but when this will happen. Here’s what to do when your co-worker steals your idea.

Don’t seek revenge

Angry Birds

Angry Birds | Rovio

You might be seeing red right now, but it’s important for you to keep your cool. So instead of stealing your co-worker’s important files or spreading vicious rumors around the office, take a deep breath and collect your thoughts. It’s best not to do anything when emotions are running high.

Talk to your colleague

Business colleagues working together

Co-workers talking | iStock.com

Try to give your co-worker the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps there’s a small possibility he or she had been working on a similar idea before you were slated to give your presentation. The only way you can find out is to have a discussion. Don’t resort to engaging in a yelling match during your team meeting. Talk to each other privately, when you’re both calm. Ask your co-worker what happened, and try to get his or her side of the story.

Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide, also suggests sending an email to the offender. “Send an email to the individual, and make sure to copy your boss and others. Explain that you are surprised, and flattered, he or she has taken credit for your work. But in the spirit of collaboration, you had no choice but to make sure management was aware of the oversight — which you suggest it must be. Further establish your credibility by providing dates and milestones,” Cohen told The Cheat Sheet.

Gather information

Woman gathering paperwork

Woman gathering paperwork | iStock.com

Before you speak with your supervisor, you’ll need to collect proof of your idea. This could include emails or any documents you created. Your boss will be more willing to listen if you can provide evidence of the origin of the idea. Pointing fingers won’t be enough. Although you might not be able to prove your idea was stolen, you can show you are responsible for what your co-worker claims to be his.

“One way to help prevent others from stealing your ideas at work is to keep a written record of your activities and accomplishments, and give your manager frequent project status updates. That way, if the situation arises, you’ll have ample evidence of your contributions,” Diane Domeyer, executive director of The Creative Group, told The Cheat Sheet.

Talk to your boss

The Office actors

The Office | NBC

Don’t stay quiet about what took place. Set up a meeting with your supervisor, and let him or her know that the idea presented was really yours. This way the proper credit can be given. The last thing you want is to miss out on a raise or promotion because you let your co-worker get away with taking credit for your idea. Present all your supporting information, yet resist the urge to be mean or speak about your co-worker in an unflattering way.

Don’t be so eager to share

Woman on the phone

Woman on the phone | iStock.com/RyanJLane

Going forward, be more careful about what you share with your co-workers. Also, be more aware of other people’s intentions. Not everyone in the office is there to help you. Some get great pleasure from seeing others fail. Only share information that your office mates need to know. You’ll be much happier.

Ask for a change

 Stressed business people at work

Stressed business people at work | Liaison

If your co-worker is a repeat offender and you often have to work together in a group, see whether it’s possible to be reassigned. It never hurts to ask. You might even be paired with a group you get along very well with and produce even better results.

Get realistic

businessman texting in his office

Businessman texting in his office | iStock.com/shironosov

Although it doesn’t feel great to have one of your ideas stolen and your co-worker take credit for it, you’ll need to remember this isn’t uncommon in the workplace. It will be necessary for you to develop thick skin if you want to continue to work with other people.

Learn from your experience

Young man with glasses working on his notebook

Young man working on his notebook | iStock.com/NakoPhotography

This experience might not have been pleasant, but it is still an opportunity to learn something valuable. Maybe you learned you needed to work on your conflict resolution skills. Or perhaps you learned how to keep your emotions under control at work. Whatever the lesson was, remember it so you can take these skills with you to other jobs. You never know when you’ll find yourself in a similar situation.  


meeting at work

Work meeting | iStock.com

You won’t be as effective at work if you’re harboring a grudge against your co-worker. Over time, your anger toward this person will continue to boil on the inside, and you might become a grumpy, angry person. Needless to say, you won’t be much fun to work with. In addition, it’s hard for creativity to flow when you’re filled with resentment and anger. Let whatever you have against your teammate go. You might even come up with a much better idea than the last one.   

Move on

Woman taking a break from work

Woman taking a break from work | iStock.com/Moussa81

Once the problem has been addressed, all you can do is move on. Don’t was your time and energy being upset with a co-worker. Instead, use every moment on the job to be your most productive.

A small part of you might want to continue to escalate things and get human resources involved, but that’s usually not the best route, said Kathi Elster, career coach and author of Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal. Human resources will not typically get involved with this kind of problem, so Elster said the best way to protect yourself in the workplace is to learn how to defend your ideas.

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