Colleagues and robbers

Why your coworkers just might pilfer your ideas, take credit for your work and steal your thunder at the office.

If you’re a fan of ’80s movies, odds are you’ve seen Working Girl, starring Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver. Long story short, the plot went like this: Griffith’s character, Tess, is a secretary who has an idea that could land a huge client. She tells her boss, Katharine (played by Weaver), who promises to consider it. Katharine later lies and tells Tess that the idea is a bust, but not before passing it off as her own and sending it to a business partner, who wants to run with it. Spoiler alert: Tess discovers what’s happened, impersonates Katharine (who’s out of town) to close the deal, gets caught and gets canned. Then, just before the credits roll, there’s hoopla at the office — Tess has the client’s ear, explains how she came up with the concept and exposes Katharine as a thief. In the end, Katharine gets the axe and the client gives Tess a plum new gig (and her own secretary).

The concept of stealing ideas and taking credit for a colleague’s work (also known as theft of intellectual property) isn’t just the premise for a great flick — it’s a growing problem in workplaces across the country.

Jack, a CPA in Toronto, says he was burned at work by a colleague who unfairly got recognition for something he did. "She had been promoted to a senior controller position over others who had more experience, and she was struggling," he says. "We were working together on a strategic project based on a five-year projection and she took credit for my work." And, unlike Tess’s happy ending in the movie, Jack never got the praise he was entitled to. "The big boss liked her, so nothing could be done," he recalls.

"People today are working in political environments. They’re competing for limited resources and for rewards. They want to get ahead, position themselves favourably and present good ideas as their own," says David Zweig, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management at the University of Toronto. The problem? When work or an idea is pinched, there’s almost always a snowball effect, which increases negative behaviours (such as knowledge hiding, also gaining prominence in workplaces).


Besides the politics and lack of resources that folks deal with at the office these days, there’s a bigger reason behind this unethical conduct. For Sandra Robinson, a professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, the thief’s motives fit into one of two categories: purposeful or inadvertent. "The purposeful stealing of ideas is perhaps the easiest to understand," she says. "The thief wants the benefits of ownership, such as recognition and other organizational rewards, without having to incur the investment themselves. They could be unmotivated to do the work, or, more likely, they are incapable of doing the work. In his or her mind, the next best bet is to usurp the work and ideas of others and present them as his or her own."Less obvious is the inadvertent crook. "There is some research to suggest that the perception of idea and project ownership isn’t always as black and white as we think it should be," she says, adding that it’s common for people to overestimate their share of work on successful projects. This means that it’s possible for more than one person on the same project to want to take full credit for it and lay claim that it’s exclusively his or her own. "So, not surprisingly, when someone makes the same claim, he or she feels the ownership for the work was stolen from him or her." In the case of ideas, there’s also the possibility that an employee can think he or she has a fantastic original idea and be completely unaware that it actually came from somewhere — or someone — else.

For Zweig, the main reason why intellectual property theft occurs is because of the atmosphere most corporations have cultivated. "There’s emphasis on sharing information and working together in teams, but we don’t reward group outcomes — we only award individuals," he says. "The basic principle of learning is to engage in behaviour that allows achievements to be made. But the reward system in many companies says achievements are made individually, not by teams." It’s this system that attracts thieves who are looking to pad their portfolios and beef up their contributions before performance reviews.


The best ways to protect yourself from thievery will take effort on your part. First, be more open about what you’re working on right from the get-go, Robinson suggests. "If you’ve experienced idea theft, you might want to hold your ideas closer to your chest, but I would suggest doing the opposite — make sure your peers, as well as higher-ups, are aware of your work and the progress you are making," she says. If you’re an open book about what you’re working on and how it’s going, you’ll build witnesses to your accomplishments, making it difficult for someone to swoop in and take the end product. You’ll also want to get into the habit of record keeping. "Document interactions and back up your work with emails so you can demonstrate it’s yours and not a colleague’s," says Zweig. Remember, it’s important to be honest about what your contribution really is — colleagues building on your idea, and you building on your colleagues’ ideas, is precisely how brainstorming works, so don’t get bent out of shape if your initial thought morphs into a much bigger concept. "If I tell my department that I have an idea for new accounting software and five years later the idea is actually generated, a lot of work went into bringing it to fruition and I can’t take credit for the entire project," he says.


Since you can’t necessarily change people, Zweig says, change the environment. "It’s incumbent on senior leaders to recognize this behaviour is happening and change the organization’s reward process." Employees are not as likely to engage in intellectual theft when there are incentives that truly promote working in groups and sharing information. It comes down to "acknowledging each person’s contribution in the group and acknowledging that other people have had input into the ideas and work."

Managers would be wise to take action before idea theft spreads through the company. "If employees can’t trust that they will get full credit for their work, they are understandably less motivated to continue to produce it," says Robinson. "Cynicism goes up, morale goes down and it fuels territorial behaviour, whereby colleagues are less likely to share ideas for fear of infringement." Employees end up protecting their turf instead of doing their jobs. "If it appears the organization does nothing in response, there will be feelings of injustice, which will reduce contributions to the firm and increase turnover."

It sounds tough to do, but Robinson stresses the importance of approaching these issues head-on as constructively, positively and as timely as possible. "Avoid accusations or assumptions about motives. Find out why he or she did it, convey what you know about the situation and express how it made you feel," she suggests. "If the employee purposefully stole the work, bringing it up and drawing attention to it may be enough to nip it in the bud going forward."