my coworker is taking credit for my ideas

A reader writes:

I work for a small company with a relatively flat org chart. Most employees answer to the CEO, myself included.

One of my coworkers, “James,” is involved in many aspects of the business. He is one of the longest serving employees in the office. I work with both of them in my area, of which I am the only employee.

Though overall great, James has a habit of taking conversations between the two of us, and presenting them to the CEO as if they were his own.

For example, I will mention to him that I think we should focus on a particular issue in the next week for reasons x,y, and z. Then, while we are still talking, he will call our CEO over and say “I think we need to focus on this particular issue, for reasons x,y,z” without mentioning our discussion.

Other times, he will check with me for an update on a particular issue, and then later give that update to the CEO in a meeting with all three of us, instead of asking me to go over the issue (again, this is in my area of expertise). He does not credit me, and I often have to jump in to make sure it is communicated properly.

Sometimes this comes off as if James is able to come to these conclusions without my expertise, other times it looks like James has to tell me what to do so my job is done properly, and at worst James will take credit for my idea.

I have tried “solving” this problem by not talking to James about issues away from our CEO, but that is pretty much impossible with our type of office and work. I will also try and speak before him in a meeting when certain issues come up, but that is difficult.

I do not know how to bring up this issue without sounding petty. I do doubt James is doing this intentionally. We are not competing for the same position, and there is no chance he will one day be my supervisor. I value his opinion, and will ask him for advice. Not of these instances seem large enough in the moment to bother bringing up, but they certainly add up to a pattern.

To complicate matters, I have discussed with the CEO my future in this organization. Based on the growth in my area, it is not sure whether I should be leading the department in a couple of years, or whether to sooner hire someone above me. Though its definitely not decided, its definitely important that I appear as a self-directed leader and expert in this area.

So, do I bring this up to James? If so, how? Or should I continue to “solve” this problem privately?

P.S. Some of my friends think this dynamic is because I am a young woman, and both James and the CEO are older men. I sort of doubt it, as I have not gotten that vibe in other interactions.

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 152 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. sunny-dee

    It can be a male / female dynamic, but I’d put it at least as likely, maybe even more, as an age thing. James is older and more senior both generally and in the company — it’s really natural in situations like that for someone to feel more in control than a more junior person.

    The thing about taking control of the conversation is key, and I like the conversation pointers there.

    Reply
    1. AMG

      Taking control is exactly the phrase I had in my head. You have power in this situation. Saddle up and use it. You will get more comfortable doing this over time. Remember to always stay calm and professional while you are doing exactly what Alison suggests. Practice it in the mirror/shower/car so you it rolls off the tongue.

      Reply
    2. neverjaunty

      Those things are not entirely separate; age and gender dynamics tend to magnify each other. Luckily the solution is pretty much the same either way.

      Reply
  2. KR

    I also feel like taking control is important. Don’t be hesitant to advocate for yourself OP – James certainly isn’t and that’s why he’s stealing your ideas. I wonder if you discuss things with James you could tell him in the moment that you’d prefer to bring it up to the CEO. Example, “James, our work on the Vanilla teapots is declining and Raspberry teapots are becoming the Next Big Thing in my opinion. I think we should focus on Raspberry teapots. Oh, since this is really my area of expertise I should be the one to bring this up in our meeting this afternoon.”

    Reply
    1. AMG

      “Oh, since this is really my area of expertise I am going to bring this up in our meeting this afternoon.” No ‘should’s for James. Don’t give him one toe in the door. You are doing this.

      Reply
  3. ZenJen

    I don’t think it’s necessarily an age issue. But it is an issue of being more assertive and confident–I have been there, many times, and you HAVE to speak up and put yourself out there. Do NOT let that senior coworker speak for you!!!
    Also, when I was in this situation in the past, the male coworkers KNEW that they were consciously presenting my ideas as theirs, and when I was assertive, they learned that they couldn’t pull this nonsense.
    Today, I’m the one with the expertise, that many people come to with their questions. :-)

    Reply
    1. AMG

      I would say that James knows what he’s doing. How much malice you can attribute to it isn’t clear, but I am very confident that he is aware of what he is doing.

      Reply
      1. Anonamoose

        Yep, knowing this situation from my own past work, it’s is completely competitive. He knows, and he thinks she’s a patsy. (is that what it’s called one someone is a doormat? I forget) Point is – nuh-uh sister. This is your job, you own it and nobody (except the ceo) gets to steal your sunshine.

        Excellent talking points!

        Reply
  4. BWooster

    I’m going through this now at my new job. I discuss ideas with a co-worker, we go to our boss and all of a sudden our ideas or even my ideas are presented by him without me getting a mention at all. It is absolutely maddening, disheartening and discouraging. Worst of all is that I saw this happening to the only other woman in the whole 60-person team, use Allison’s wording and get lectured about credit seeking and how against our ethos it was. Grrrr.

    Reply
    1. AMG

      That absolutely sucks. I would probably look for another job because you may never get a fair shake there. I am quick to jump ship when I don’t like a workplace.

      Reply
      1. Lemon Zinger

        That’s terrible practice. Alison has written many times about the importance of not looking like a job-hopper.

        Reply
      2. Jesmlet

        The more you job hop, the more likely you are to end up in a bad work environment because good environments generally care about things like longevity with a company and can be more picky when it comes to looking for new employees because they have a good reputation. Choose your battles wisely. Don’t cut your losses too many times or else you’ll get stuck in the revolving door of poorly managed companies.

        Reply
      3. AMG

        How many jobs have I been at? How long was my longest stay and my shortest? Not working at a bad place does not mean I am a job hopper. It means I am not willing to tolerate a bad job. Mine have mostly been good.

        Reply
    2. animaniactoo

      “Shouldn’t credit stealing or “co-opting” be against our ethos too? How will you know and be able to properly evaluate the value I bring to the company if somebody else is getting the credit for it? If it’s a perpetual issue, I think that I should be able to advocate for myself about it and that it’s only to both of our benefit to be aware of whose work or idea it is.”

      Reply
      1. animaniactoo

        Alternately “Then why is Fergus seeking credit for it by bringing it up instead of letting me do it or mentioning my involvement when he does? I fail to understand how that’s not a much more egregious form of credit-seeking”

        Reply
    3. Temperance

      Oh that’s straight up RIDICULOUS. And sexist. So it’s fine for the men you work with to poach women’s ideas, but it’s somehow just not okay for women to reclaim their ideas? No.

      Reply
      1. Anonamoose

        Yes, I find this set up interesting too. Does it ever happen between male colleagues? What does that look like? Do they bro-hug it out afterwards? Or get the same lecture? I’d love to be a curious fly on the wall of those team meetings!

        Reply
    4. designbot

      I’ve had that issue before and gotten the same response that I was not enough of a team player, too focused on getting credit for myself etc. It can be hard but for a company with this culture the way to combat it is with gratitude. I know it sounds cheesy and a little backwards, but it really worked for me. I was so mad about somebody telling me what to do in a James-ish way, but realized that I couldn’t speak up about it to my boss before I thanked her for something else first just due to bad dynamics. When I thanked her, it started such a good conversation that I made it a point to express gratitude to someone (anyone at work!) every day. People noticed, and weirdly enough I didn’t need to advocate as much for my own work once I approached things this way, because what Being a Leader meant in that company wasn’t that you knew and did all the things, it was that you helped other people to do them. So by thanking people and promoting other people, I showed more leadership than any amount of advocating for myself could have done. If this sounds like the culture of your office, try it.

      Reply
      1. Anonamoose

        Wait. So you think relationship building helped? As in succumbing to a touchy feely culture? Or turning into a text book ‘feeler/woman’ so that the culture was comfortable with you speaking your mind again? I’m a little confused, sorry!

        Reply
        1. designbot

          I wouldn’t call it succumbing to touchy feely culture, but reframing the dynamic of the team in my mind. Before I saw it as a team where I was struggling to show that I was a valuable contributor and receive recognition for that, and after I saw it as being my responsibility to recognize others. Instead of expecting leaders to recognize me, I recognized others and that changed the dynamic so that I was then recognized as a leader myself. Don’t look up and wonder what those people think of you, look down and sideways and make sure those people know you think well of them, and (in the right company culture) this will actually promote you better than you can promote yourself. Now don’t go overboard or it looks slimy, just recognize the things that genuinely deserve it.

          Reply
    5. neverjaunty

      Try flipping it around. “I agree, we need to focus on being team players and sharing credit. That’s why I wanted to bring this up – I worry that James was going to get accused of credit-hogging and putting himself above the team, so I wanted to be clear he wasn’t doing that, and that he’s great at collaborating with me on these ideas.”

      I mean, they’ll know what’s really going on, and you’ll know what’s really going on, but what are they going to say? How dare you try to praise James for collaborating?

      Reply
    6. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      UGH, workplaces like this are the worst. You have at least two strategies that could counterbalance this (in addition to the other excellent suggestions in the thread): First, you can figure out if the other woman is frustrated by this problem and create a support system/team. It doesn’t have to be formal, but it has a way of making people feel less isolated and more righteous. Second, assuming your female coworker is on board (which she may not be), I find it’s helpful to interrupt and affirm what a coworker being sidelined is saying. So when Stealy McStealerson starts rehashing an idea you came up with, either you or woman #2 can interrupt and say, “I think BWooster raised that issue. Perhaps she can clarify her suggestion?”

      Or you can ask Stealy for specifics after he presents your idea, because chances are he has no idea since he didn’t actually think up the idea or its implementation. Or you can stop sharing your ideas with Stealy. I’ve used all of the above successfully, but it requires understanding the dynamic in the room and not caring if people think you’re nice.

      Reply
      1. OhNo

        Sticking up for each other in a situation like that works wonders. It might be “credit seeking” to point out that the big win of the week was your idea, but it’s very different to have someone else at the table say, out loud, “That was BWooster’s idea,” and directing the attention back to you.

        If there’s any similarly ignored guys on the team, try to get them involved, too. If this is a habit based out of sexism (or racism, or ageism, or whatever other disparity might be in play), having someone from the privileged side redirecting the credit tends to help the lesson stick.

        Reply
    7. Leah the Designer

      Just went through something similar on a smaller team. A new person rejoined after leaving the job for over a year. We have the same roles, and relatively the same amount of experience if you compare formal training/ job experience and on the job training/ job experience. Both the age dynamic and female-male dynamic is going on. He would like control over input over every step of the process, whereas I only see value in collaboration at the beginning stages. It gets too muddy to have multiple points of contact though-out the process as it a long and tedious one. I honestly don’t understand why he would want to filter through every piece of design work/project we have going on as he’s not a manager.

      To make the story short, he went over my head on a job that was mine to produce/design for feedback even though I was the point of contact. He them came back to me with the requested feedback. Normally this would be a direct conversation with the sales and I. If it were the project managers, it would be a direct conversation between them an the sales. The same goes for almost every department. I asked my manager if he was supposed to be managing me and he assured me that is not the case.

      In the end, I told this coworker that he had prevented me from having valuable dialog between me and the sales. He tried to say that it doesn’t matter as he wanted to “nip the idea of idea ownership in the bud.” (Yes our ideas are owned by the company but I am not a production artist, I am a designer. I need to have input as well.) Well, he didn’t get it till I pointed out that he was managing me rather than letting me do the work. I told him that I didn’t think that’s how it was intended but it was how it was perceived. Also pointed out that we have enough jobs going on that it makes sense to have one point of contact after initial stages of project just to lessen miscommunication. (He scoffed at that :( ) I don’t want to feel like I have to check everything I do over with him when he isn’t my manager. It’s disrespectful. He did admit if I had done the same to him he would have assumed I was managing him as well.

      Btw, I was very polite but direct in the way I addressed him. We will see how it goes.

      Reply
      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        I am so angry at him and all his condescending, belittling nonsense. Please let us know how things go, Leah! (also, why is your manager not doing anything?? Or was he waiting for you to try to handle it yourself, first?)

        Reply
        1. Leah the Designer

          I wanted to address it first now that I knew he was not asked to manage/supervise me. My manager also agreed with this. I’d like to give my coworker the benefit of the doubt and see if he improves. My manager did say he would talk to my coworker if it continues.

          Reply
      2. OhNo

        Fingers crossed! If he doesn’t take the hint and tries it again, you could always try making it uncomfortable for him. Say something like, “Did you ask the sales people about X? No? Well that’s vital to the production of this design. I can’t move forward without it, and that’s why I was planning to talk to the sales people myself. By the way, this kind of situation is exactly what I meant when we talked about miscommunication.”

        Sometimes a little (private, polite) admonishment works wonders in getting through to people.

        Reply
      3. Leah the Designer

        Sidenote- he brought up anecdotal story about how his coworker at last workplace took credit for his idea and there was a big push for perfection at last job. (Ironic right!) I had to point out that I would put credit to where credit is due as I value my own integrity more than that. He brushed that aside. In all honestly, it just signals he doesn’t trust me or wants to micromanage.

        Reply
        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          It sounds like he’s preemptively modeling the bad behavior he was subjected to earlier in his career. Which is awful. I’m sorry, Leah—he sounds like he has deeper-rooted issues that may truly have nothing to do with you, but that you’re getting the brunt of. :(

          Reply
  5. Joan

    If you feel like you know James well enough on an employee level, I would talk to him frankly about it and what bothered you. In this case, b/c you seem to think he will never be your boss and he doesn’t have a chance at promotion ahead of you, you have nothing to lose to be honest and above board about your disappointment.

    Based on his response, you should be able to tell what is going on here. If he is truly wanting to present your ideas in a better way than he thinks you can do on your own, you can ask how you might become better at that yourself in the future, offer to coach you and give you resources, etc. If he is actually stealing your ideas for his own, he is likely to wave you off and say you’re being ridiculous. However, *tread carefully*, even if he says he is trying to help and plans to help you in the future. Actions speak louder than words. Many snakes in the grass are good about covering their tracks and try to “gaslight” you into making you feel like a fool for having brought this up in the first place and you’re being silly.

    I have dealt with many men (and women) who were above me and have taken my ideas to make themselves look better. This seems to happen more frequently, too, when the women (and sometimes men) whose ideas they were happened to be younger, greener, and less experience. When those three adjectives apply, it’s more likely you don’t know it when it’s happening, like it’s “normal.” But the fact that you’ve pointed out you’re younger means you’ve noticed it and it has bothered you, which is good.

    I will also point out that in my current place of work, shoving back and showing I care and will not be stepped on has worked with some coworkers who previously treated me like dirt. It’s not my personality but I guess with those people, they respect me more now that they know I won’t take it lying down. It is harder for a woman, especially early in her career, to be confident and talk back to her superiors. But sometimes you have to do it. You’ll also learn that you’ll need to pick your battles :)

    Tangent advice for young women: do not feel the need to apologize and say sorry when you’ve got nothing to be sorry for. I had to learn this in the first few years in the working world. As a child I was incredibly placating and not wanting to create or confront conflict. The problem is when you do this, the other person thinks less of you for being such a doormat and in some cases, you will not be promoted for being weak, even if it is simply perceived. It is a hard habit to break but you will be SO HAPPY when you come to the point where you are okay walking away and not saying sorry because you will realize you are being professional – like everyone else who has learned this!

    Reply
    1. BestInShow

      I wouldn’t talk to James about feelings at all. That makes it easy to easy to say “you are taking this to personally” and sodomise the conversation.

      Reply
      1. BestInShow

        Ahhhhhhh!

        Sideline! Sideline!

        I am new to swipe and did not notice. Alison I know you usually don’t want Grammer fixes but could you fix this one?

        Ahhhhhhh. Imagine if I had emailed that. I think sideline will have to come out of my phone vocabulary.

        Reply
            1. Catalin

              I’m dying over here. I was breezing through and saw “sodomize” and thought, “Well that’s an interesting way to take it.”

              I mean, technically it works, but it sends us down a very unfortunate road.

              Reply
        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          Eh, it would be really rape culturey if it were intentional. It’s much funnier as a fail and makes it easier to have a respectful dialogue :)

          Reply
      1. Joan

        Thank you AMG. I’ve suffered pretty badly in some places (some due to my personality and the way I was raised), and I don’t want my suffering to be for naught! Fingers crossed this time next year I’ll be in a much better place.

        Reply
  6. BestInShow

    I think we as women get so hung up on the idea that sexism has to be so egregious that we often do not attribute micro aggressions as sexism when they are.

    The fact of the matter is every single woman in business I know has had this happen to them and I don’t know a single guy who has dealt with it.

    I have had men of all ages do this to me. I have even had men repeat verbatim what I said later in the same meeting and still get credit. Allison’s wording is key. It’s an unfortunate reality that women in the office need to learn to master taking their own ideas back with grace and aplomb. Show even a hint of annoyance and abrasive will be in your performance reviews faster than you can blink.

    Reply
    1. Joan

      “It’s an unfortunate reality that women in the office need to learn to master taking their own ideas back with grace and aplomb.”

      THANK YOU!

      Unfortunate, too, that in certain situations, women being “too aggressive” going after what they want are considered b*s, while men are applauded for the same behavior…

      Reply
    2. AMG

      Yep. Watch Hillary Clinton when she’s mad. She’s a master at staying calm. The most successful women I know stay completely cool and handle it with confidence and complete lack of emotion. It’s an unfortunate double standard but that’s how you play it.

      Reply
    3. Navy Vet

      This times one million. I literally had a male say the same thing as me verbatim, right after me…and everyone couldn’t wait to congratulate him on his genius.

      Infuriating.

      Make sure you smile while you reclaim your intellectual property. Or else you will be seen as agressive. Which apparently is the very worst thing you can be as a woman.

      Reply
    4. sunny-dee

      Well, this just happened to my husband by a younger, less experienced female colleague. And I have seen a co-worker who I really liked completely scuttle her career by attributing every personality conflict, rocky project, or tense meeting to sexism when sexism had nothing to do with it.

      No gender has a monopoly on bad behavior and Alison’s advice is sound for taking control regardless of motivation, though it’s good for the OP that she’s not getting a sexist vibe. She has to be there long term.

      Reply
      1. Clinical Social Worker

        Two points of anecdata when we have literally thousands of stories of women experiencing this *daily*.

        Yup.

        Reply
        1. Highway to Yell

          In other words, I don’t really want to hear other viewpoints and experiences so I’m just going to dismiss and invalidate them by calling them “anecdata.”

          Yup.

          Reply
      2. designbot

        But what we’re talking about here is how the differences in how the genders are taught to behave create the sort of conflict that OP is experiencing. Each person is doing exactly as they’ve been taught is normal, and the conflict is likely invisible to one of them. Of course there are jerks of every gender, race, age, and creed, but what we’ve got going on is generations of men who’ve been taught that jerky behavior is normal. Even the non-jerks often do it just out of habit.

        Reply
      3. neverjaunty

        Nobody said one gender has a monopoly on bad behavior. Nobody said that this is something only men do. I don’t understand why you think this is a rebuttal, or why you felt the need to rush in and complain that somebody points out sexism in the workplace is a real freaking thing.

        Reply
        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          Exactly this. When one gender experiences this kind of side-lining at an overwhelming rate when compared to the other, it doesn’t really add to the conversation to say that this sometimes happens to the other gender, too. OP was particularly careful to contextualize what was happening without assigning blame, but had she stated that she thinks it’s the result of workplace sexism, that would have been 100% appropriate/ok, too.

          I’m not really sure I understand what you’re trying to convey, sunny-dee, aside from “not all men.” If I’m misreading, though, please help me better understand your point.

          Reply
    5. Anon13

      You basically said everything I wanted to! And, the fact that women can sometimes do this same thing to men, or men can sometimes do it to each other, doesn’t mean that it isn’t something men do to women more frequently, and with fewer consequences, than the reverse. I know I am sensitive to this because it has been a particular problem at my current job, but this read to me as subtle, likely unintended, sexism right off the bat. And, for the record, my current coworkers are generally lovely people. This is the first job where I have experienced this phenomenon to this degree and it’s been quite jarring to me how much subtle, likely accidental, sexism can affect one’s daily life at work (and, on a bigger scale, one’s career trajectory).

      Reply
    6. Mike C.

      I don’t want to take away from the greater point here, but I certainly deal with it. It’s another guy certainly, but it’s obnoxious as all hell.

      Reply
    7. Artemesia

      This. Has any woman here not sat in a meeting and watched her idea stated early in the meeting and ignored not get picked up by some guy and fawned over later in the same meeting. Heck I was once berated by a particularly unhinged boss during a meeting about my ignorant stupid idea — which he adopted within the week. Several people told me after a few meetings with this guy that I must remind him of his ex wife or something since his responses were so disproportionate. If I had had not had huge amounts of institutional capital before his hiring, I don’t think I would have survived.

      Reply
      1. AMG

        And if you call it out you can actually get elaborate explanations as to why it didn’t make sense when you suggested it, but when Guy said it 20 minutes later it was the obvious choice.

        Reply
        1. BestInShow

          Ugh yes. That is the worst. The idea that somehow your timing was off and it’s your fault your ideas are ignored. Grumpf.

          Reply
  7. Jilly

    This brings to mind a conversation that my Team Leader, a junior team member, and I were having this morning (I’m a senior team member). TL was mentioning a previous company that she worked at where they espoused the idea of eminence – kind of the idea of walking into a room and owning it. It was in the context of someone else at our company who isn’t on our team, but was working with us on a project. Apparently yesterday at his team meeting he gave a presentation on all the amazing things he did on a recent business trip. Jr team member was at that meeting and confirmed that he said all this. Whereas TL is stymied on what amazing things he could have presented because this guy hasn’t been able to give us a clear reckoning of his 3 weeks at the client site. I’m going out there this weekend to take over what he was doing and I can’t get a to do list out of him. But as the TL said, he believes he actually accomplished a lot (not that we have any finalized documents to show for it!), so he went into his weekly team meeting with eminence, projecting the aura of someone who had done a lot and now his team is all impressed with everything he did. Whereas when I came back from a business trip this summer I was probably more typically female in that I actually gave most of the credit to the client because I was out there to facilitate – they are technical people and we are more compliance people so I was on site to keep them on track for a specific function that is heavily regulated because they don’t have enough of their own compliance people to get it done. I relied on the message from the client (which I know came) that I did a good job and they were appreciative of all the work that we had been doing with them over a four month period both on site and from our HQ.

    Reply
  8. Trout 'Waver

    I really wish people everywhere understood that when you share a good idea a colleague had, and you correctly give credit to that colleague, you both look good. Supporting the good ideas of colleagues is good teamwork. And, it seems to me, that supporting others’ good ideas is a more valuable and rare skill than coming up with good ideas.

    I don’t think people who take credit for others’ work realize that they’d look even better if they acknowledged who did the work or came up with the idea and supported that person.

    Reply
    1. Joan

      I think it depends on the culture of your organization. If you’re in a place where it’s every man/woman for themselves, people are going to steal other people’s ideas and throw other people under the bus for their mistakes. In those kinds of situations, forget acknowledgment and sharing credit. It’s futile.

      However, if you’re in a healthy environment, you’re totally right. Even in emails, just the simple act of acknowledging the hard work and ideas of a coworker – regardless if they are equal in stature, above, or below you – reflects well on the kind of person you are.

      Reply
    2. BestInShow

      It’s great all around! Your coworker appreciated it. Your boss sees you are a team player and trust worthy and leadership material. Win win win.

      Reply
    3. aeldest

      I tend to have the opposite problem–I have a coworker who will rant to me about how she doesn’t like something and it should be changed, and then in a meeting with our boss will say “Aeldest and I were talking about it and we think…”

      Fortunately it’s never anything too egregious, and I usually agree (but was just not willing to go to bat over it), but it always makes me a little nervous!

      Reply
      1. neverjaunty

        You shouldn’t agree. You are giving this person the green light to speak for you. “Whoa, Jane, I know you were talking to me about this the other day, but I really don’t know enough about the problem to speak about it,” and leave Jane to talk to Boss on her own.

        Reply
      2. Artemesia

        This is super dangerous and you should nip it in the bud. This is how weak players in an organization can take other people down. Once the image is projected that you are part of the disgruntled group or agree with the trouble maker or are prone to make insensitive moves — it sticks. I had someone appeal a decision that I disagreed with but had accepted — because the highest levels of the org had decided to oppose our proposed idea — I didn’t like this but I understood it was the decision. A particularly tone deaf underling wrote a tendentious letter to the CEO opposing this decision and CCed prominently me and a couple of others who had been involved in the advocacy making it look as if we supported this. We never did get the stink off with that CEO. NEVER let anyone else speak for you without authorization even if you agree — because next time you may not and the die has been cast.

        Reply
    4. Shelby Drink the Juice

      Yes, this is how I operate. A coworker came up with an idea for a meeting to hold with some of our engineer stakeholders. He and I discussed it and I took his small idea and blew it out. Now we’re having a recurring meeting with them to discuss multiple ideas and increase communication and coordination. The engineers love it. I’m getting great feedback. When I talk to my management about it I’ve always said “this started with Wakeen’s idea”, because without his spark I ever would have done it.

      Reply
  9. AMPG

    One way to handle this in front of your CEO without looking petty is to “agree” with James, but then use language that makes it clear that it was your idea. Alison’s first example, “Yes, that’s the idea I was sharing with James right before you came over. My thinking on this is …” covers this really well, but you can also just act as if James gave you the credit – “That’s right, as James was saying, I just gave him the update that the new teapot regulations will require us to redesign our new line.”

    Reply
  10. Temperance

    I really like Alison’s advice, but I’m going to probably take it a step too far and suggest that you start poaching *his* ideas and pitching them to the CEO if he doesn’t cut the crap or if he says something like “oh I’m just presenting the team’s ideas to save CEO time.” While reading this letter, I immediately had a gut feeling that LW was female and her colleague was male, and it bummed me out that I was correct.

    I had a male peer at my last job who tried stealing my ideas, but he wasn’t quite smart enough to implement them, so I let him fail. This may not work for you.

    Reply
    1. neverjaunty

      Another great (if petty) way to do this is to make suggestions (not in writing) that you know will blow up in his face, and let him be the Go-Getter Guy Who Takes All The Credit with them. Whoops.

      Reply
      1. Aurion

        The only problem is that since James doesn’t explicitly say These Are My Ideas (rather, he implies them by not attributing the source), it’s at least possible for James to throw OP under the bus later with “oh crap, that didn’t work? But OP was so sure it would!”

        I mean, James is the one who goes “well you phrased it differently” (per the update), so I would not put this past him too.

        Reply
        1. neverjaunty

          I wouldn’t either. This tactic works if you puff up how much it was all his idea and carefully extricate yourself from any blame before it collapses.

          Reply
  11. LQ

    Is your office an environment where credit seems to matter? Does James get pats on the back for ideas? Does the CEO look to him for advice on things that are your (either individually or collectively) projects?

    If it is an environment where credit doesn’t seem that important then it might just be that he doesn’t recognize it as stealing credit, especially if he’s been there a long time.

    I’d also say does the CEO know they are your ideas? I’ve had my boss do this, but his boss knows that if I am in the room it is generally my idea so if my boss sums up what we were saying his boss will turn to me and ask questions of me. (My summing skills need work, but I’m working on it! And part of what my boss does is give context that I wouldn’t know about.)

    This phrasing is really helpful for me because I find myself feeling often like I don’t care if anyone knows it is my idea, but it can mean something fails if they give the project to someone who doesn’t understand it, and if I want the project to succeed to do good things, then I may need to speak up for it, and me, more.

    Reply
    1. AMPG

      This is a good point – even if he’s stealing credit on purpose (and I think he is), if your office culture is collaborative enough it won’t really matter. I had a coworker who used to take credit wherever she could, not realizing that it mainly made her look insecure and petty.

      On the other hand, if your office culture were that way, I suspect you wouldn’t be writing in.

      Reply
    1. Anon13

      I absolutely love this idea and wish there was another woman in my office to implement it! I’ve tried just repeating my own idea and giving myself credit before, but I think my (all male) co-workers see me as irritating when I do so. It’s very frustrating!

      Reply
      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        One thing that can help is if you have a badass male coworker who thinks of himself as a feminist or an ally. Unfortunately, the same dynamic that leads people to give men credit for women’s ideas is the same dynamic that, when done well, redirects credit when a man draws attention to it.

        But it’s true that repeating yourself usually isn’t as productive. I’ve definitely lost my temper and said, “That is literally what I said at last week’s meeting” to a group, and to their credit, they were all ashamed (although it didn’t change their behavior).

        Reply
    2. RobbieJ

      I have started doing that at school. I was the chair of our student society last year, and this year am in another important position. A lot of students would compliment me on something that someone else did (like an idea for a social event, or bursary application, or getting a guest speaker). I would always let the person know who did the hard work, and that I just supported them. Other people made an effort to do the same.

      The school got noticeably less competitive, and far more collaborative. Knowing that others would give you credit for your work helped people let down their guard.

      Reply
      1. IvyGirl

        Glad to entertain you?

        I posted twice because the first one for some reason didn’t show up.

        The bigger issue is that this is a tactic that actually needs to be used in this day and age.

        Reply
  12. Still Here

    Question: are you doing weekly one-on-ones with your manager? If not, I would suggest that you approach him about setting them up. This will give you a regular opportunity to talk with your boss about what you are working on and to provide suggestions and observations. It will also give him a chance to make suggestion / feedback on your work, which accomplishes three things: 1) You do better work 2) He’ll back you up in meetings 3) People think you are awesome when you listen to their advice :)

    Reply
  13. A Question, Not a Comment

    I have had a similar issue at work except it’s my supervisor who is putting my coworker’s name on reports I write. She leaves my name on it too, but it appears like my coworker and I are doing the same amount of work and that is not true, from my perspective. We’ll both get praised for the project, report, whathaveyou and it feels pretty demoralizing to know you put in so much effort and someone who didn’t gets the same response.

    I’m not sure how to raise this issue or if it’s even worth raising with my boss.

    Reply
    1. designbot

      Well did that person not work on it at all so putting their name on it is a lie? Or did they work on it and you’re just quibbling over them getting equal billing to you who put in more work on it?
      If it’s the former, I’d frame it as “I noticed that you often include Tywin’s name on the reports–should I be involving him with them more? I wasn’t aware that he was meant to be on this project so have just been plowing ahead with things on my own.” That way you get the boss’s attention that he’s been making an error if it is one, or giving him the opportunity to explain why if there’s some political reason for this.
      If it’s the latter, drop it. A contributor is a contributor is a contributor, and if he contributed then he deserves to have his name on it. A name listing doesn’t come with a percentage contributed, so avoid interpreting it that way.

      Reply
    2. neverjaunty

      If Tywin is getting the same credit from your boss, you have a guideline for exactly how little effort you should be putting in from now on.

      Reply
      1. designbot

        With most bosses even if the whole team gets listed on a project, they know who the primary contributors are. For example when we enter Teapot Design Awards at the end of the year, we often list 8 people as designers on the project. But when something needs updated, the boss calls on one or two people because they know who was really at the center of the project and will know everything about it. Just because the other people are listed doesn’t mean that nobody knows who did the bulk of the work, it just means, they contributed, because they did.

        Reply
        1. A Question, Not a Comment

          Thanks designbot, I think the thing I’ve been focusing on is thinking that my contributions weren’t being recognized. It’s reassuring to hear that managers are usually much more aware of who is working on a project.

          Reply
          1. designbot

            We never want to leave anybody out–having someone sulking because the whole team got praise but someone who contributed was left off the list is a crummy situation, so in situations of public praise tend to err on the side of over-inclusion. Hopefully you’re getting some signals from your boss in a more private way though that they see how much you do, and if not that’s certainly something to address in 1-on-1 talks or annual reviews to make sure your advancement and compensation reflect what you really do.

            Reply
        2. neverjaunty

          If that is indeed the situation – where everyone gets a listing, but not the same recognition from the boss – I agree with you completely. The mention that the boss praises everyone made met think this is one of those workplaces where collaborative projects are treated like your group science project in high school. (You know, everybody gets an A, the slackers ride on the coattails of the people with work ethic.)

          Reply
          1. A Question, Not a Comment

            It’s hard to tell, honestly. I am still a bit new to the professional world so it could just be my interpretation. I’ve received recognition addressed to both myself and my coworker about how great the project turned out and praising our work as a unit.

            However, the project ideas, proposals, planning, processes, and updates have all been my work. The whole department (myself, my coworker, and the two staff members we oversee) all work on getting the physical aspects of the project done by being assigned time to work on it. And while I do recognize my staff members for the work they put into a project, they’re not listed on the documentation. My coworker is.

            In your analogy, it’s not that no one is contributing. It’s that there’s one student who comes up with the topic, creates the PowerPoint, assigns the other students a part to work on, and puts it all together. While each student did contribute, there is definitely an imbalance.

            Reply
  14. Mike C.

    So how does one deal with this when it isn’t a dynamic of sexism, rather just the case of someone trying to climb the rankings really fast? I have a coworker I’ve had to work with in the past who would go so far as to schedule meetings with stakeholders behind my back, present his work as his own or even come in early to try and recreate work others have done to “get it done faster” and take all the credit?

    What’s maddening is that I work for a very, very large company. He’s management track, I’m technical. The pie is so huge that no one can have it all and there clearly shouldn’t be any competition here.

    In the past I’ve done everything I can to show up at those meetings anyway, and I’ve gone so far as to teach him new stuff as a way become more of the “person who is both skilled and finds new skills” rather than just “person who is skilled”. Even then, it’s really annoying.

    Reply
    1. Mephyle

      I don’t see why any of Alison’s suggestions above should be modified when sexism (or ageism, for that matter) is out of the picture. None of the strategies or scripts are based on OP being female and James being male. Or is there something I’m missing?

      Reply
      1. Mike C.

        The majority of these don’t work well when you don’t know the full extent of what’s happening until later and the coworker in question is doing their best to hide the fact it’s being done until it’s too late and decisions have been made. It becomes a constant competition to watch his Outlook for meetings I should be attending and seeing him perform work I was assigned without any discussion and so on.

        I haven’t had to work with this guy for a while, but we run in the same circles so it’s only a matter of time.

        Reply
        1. Mimi

          ” It becomes a constant competition to watch his Outlook for meetings”

          This is happening in my office. I don’t like having to do it, but I have to look up who is attending what, so I have an idea who is in the know while the rest of us are being left in the dark.

          I guess you have to decide if this other dude is well and truly “far away” enough from you in the company to not have an effect on you. It sucks when you’re anointed “the smart one” – and get stuck with all the technical grunt work – while someone who is entirely untechnical claps his/her hands and they get credit ultimately, even though you did the behind the scenes work to get them to that point.

          If he’s really that power-hungry, maybe he’ll get poached by another company and leave :P

          Reply
      2. Mike C.

        Also, the tone and the justification for the specific tactics were given (rightly so) in the context of a common and specific pattern of sexist behavior. Thus the question of clarification when it’s a case of someone simply climbing up the ladder on the backs of others.

        Reply
  15. Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys

    Great advice as always AAM. Did the New York Magazine not have any graphics more recent than circa 1995? The hair alone dates the picture, but the computer in the background could practically be in a museum. *grin*

    Reply
  16. Jane - OP

    Letter writer here! Thanks everyone for their comments, this has been really helpful.

    Since I wrote this letter I have been passively working to prevent James from taking credit, either by simply not sharing ideas with him when our CEO is not around, or making sure to call over our CEO if James and I are talking, or bringing them to the CEO directly. However, these things are not always possible in our environment.

    I also have a male colleague who is around my age and position in the company, and after realizing he and I were having similar issues, we have been working to “spotlight” or “amplify” each other’s ideas in meetings we have with James and the CEO. For example, if James starts to repeat one of our ideas as his own, one of us will say “Oh, Jane actually mentioned that last week”. However, James often responds to this by saying something like “well you phrased it differently than I am phrasing it” or “the situation is different from when we originally discussed that”.

    But at the end of the day, this is still occurring regularly (literally in a meeting this morning!). I think based on the feedback from Alison and other commenters, I now know what to say to James privately, as I have not tried that yet. I wasn’t sure how to phrase it, or if it was even worth it.

    I will also definitely use the language outlined for asserting myself within meetings. I should have added in my letter that I have received feedback previously when asserting myself that I can be too aggressive in meetings, which is one of the reasons I was hesitant to stand up for myself on this issue. I would only stand up to James in meetings when I knew I could do so very easily and very passively.

    I do think Alison is correct in that James sees himself as a gatekeeper to the CEO. I am realizing this is a pattern with him and many people. However, my boss and other coworkers are more sensitive when I assert myself vs. my male colleagues. I am the only woman who directly reports to the CEO, and one of three women in the company. I am realizing from these comments that James has an easier time passing my ideas as his own because it is more difficult for me to gracefully assert myself, making this more of an issue for me than my male coworkers. I am not sure if he is malicious enough to consciously take advantage of this, but I think I will get a better idea once I confront him directly.

    Thanks everyone!

    Reply
    1. LQ

      I have to say that if I heard someone saying “well you phrased it differently” I would think that person was the assiest of asses. Maybe because of the work environments I’ve been in, but someone saying that would be thought of as NOT someone to turn to or trust.

      You could wear a shirt saying “I’m a petty jerk” but that phrase is actually way more explicit. Yeesh.

      I hope your boss sees that too.

      Reply
    2. Aurion

      Oof. All benefit of the doubt I had evaporated upon “well you phrased it differently.” Jeez, what a glassbowl.

      Keep us updated, OP–I’d love to know what James’ reaction will be when you talk to him about it!

      Reply
    3. animaniactoo

      “You phrased it differently.”

      “I see, thank you for clarifying/expanding on my original concept. Do you agree that X is an issue/benefit we should be concerned about/driving towards?”

      Reply
      1. Bigitte

        You’re much nicer than me! I’m thinking this is the moment for a well-timed, “Excuse me?” accompanied by a blank stare.

        Reply
    4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      Thanks so much for the update! James is indeed a human slug (except maybe that’s offensive to slugs?). His reaction sounds petty and like he’s scrambling to stay in the spotlight since he can’t get there on the strength of his own ideas. I’m so disappointed/sorry to see that your boss/employer has tried to dial down your assertiveness because they find it threatening (??!!). I would continue to amplify and spotlight with your male colleague, and of course, to implement Alison’s advice. I’m really sorry you have to deal with this knuckle-dragging, Jane.

      Reply
    5. neverjaunty

      “However, James often responds to this by saying something like “well you phrased it differently than I am phrasing it” or “the situation is different from when we originally discussed that” – that is almost certainly coming across as weak and defensive, especially when he’s saying it to people other than you. What a tool.

      You may also want to pushback on that feedback about being “too aggressive” in meetings. Perhaps the person giving the feedback genuinely doesn’t understand that they are treating you differently than your male colleagues (in 20 freaking 16).

      Reply
    6. BestInShow

      Yes. Aggressive. Abrasive. All a words that most high performing women have seen in there reviews for daring to own their ideas.

      Reply
      1. JaneB

        Also neurotic and hysterical when the male is passionate about things.

        I may be somewhat bitter about these things but I am just so TIRED of this.

        Reply
    7. Joan

      Is it just me, or does “well you phrased it differently than I am phrasing it” reek of passive-aggressiveness?

      Oh boy. This appears to be a slippery one. He wouldn’t have said that unless he realized he has been caught. Why would the situation be different? Oh yes, because it was in private and he was formulating a way to twist things around and sound like he came up with it…

      Too aggressive? Yup, the dreaded comment only reserved for women.

      I don’t know how long you have been at this place, but you may want to get as much as you can out of it, pad your resume, etc. and then when you’ve had enough, find another place that welcomes your ideas and forward thinking!

      Reply
  17. Rachael

    Another take on this situation: My ex would take credit for others ideas. However, with him it went deeper and affected his home, personal, and work life. He would be in a conversation with someone who had an original idea, joke, or technique to do something and turn into his idea. It was creepy to watch because you could see someone saying something, him listening & nodding his head, and him acting like he “agrees” with whatever they are saying as if he is the “all knowing”. Later he could be heard talking to someone else about the same thing and talking as if it was his original idea because deep down inside he felt that he contributed to the original idea and brought his own thoughts to the table, when in reality he did nothing. There was no way you could convince him that it wasn’t his idea because he genuinly thought that he came up with the idea. I’m not sure if that is what is happening here, but it could just be him genuinely thinking that you two are “collaborating” and talks about your ideas as if they are his because he actually thinks that he drove the conversation.

    If this is true, you have a hard road because, in my experience, he will think that you are trying to steal HIS ideas and are being petty. In this case, Alison is correct. You need to assert yourself and come up with your own relationship with the CEO because it is HIS opinion that matters.

    Reply
    1. Editor

      In private life, however, people like this can be played. I was on a cruise with a lot of people who were almost but not really old enough to be my parents. One was a retired corporate executive who was telling me about how awful “those people” in the inner cities were because they were lazy and lacked ambition. So I told him all about an article I had read about the culture and dynamics of the city in question and also told him about another article (crediting the sources) that laid out the theory that drug dealing was evidence of entrepreneurship and that there was a lot of “wasted” business acumen in inner cities.

      Two days later at dinner when I was present, he put forth the product of my extensive reading as his own idea. As a woman who was younger, I thought he was presumptuous, because when I tried to add to the conversation, the other, wealthier people at the table treated me like I was trying to free-ride on his ideas. But at the same time, I thought it was hilarious that Mr. Executive was now spouting liberal ideas when he was so conventionally conservative.

      Reply
  18. Tomato Frog

    Ugh, people not giving credit. I am religious about giving proper attribution, but I think a lot of people don’t even bother to remember where they got their ideas.

    I had a recent experience I thought was pretty extreme. I was in a meeting with four other people. We’re all women. We were sitting around one person’s desk– no chance of not hearing anyone. I made some simple, sound suggestion and the colleague farthest away from me said “Yes,” to agree with me, and repeated what I had just said. Immediately, two of the other people at the table told her what a great idea she had just had. Repeatedly. And she didn’t say gainsay them at all. None of these people are out to get me, we all like and respect each other, they just somehow rewrote the past 30 seconds completely in their head. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone.

    Anyone have a link to that “You made this/I made this” comic?

    Reply
  19. Long time listener, First time caller

    Just a thought that James might be at the point in his career where he is being found wanting for new ideas. He pumps LW for information so as not to be stale. My question is, Why are you updating him when he is not your superior? And, since he does this frequently, why are you still dishing him out new ideas to use? Also, maybe he doesn’t want you to accomplish your career goals since he seems to be same level as you but much older. He seems to have tapped a fresh well and is using it to gain some sort of advancement over you. He’s jealous.

    Reply
    1. Editor

      From the letter: “For example, I will mention to him that I think we should focus on a particular issue in the next week for reasons x,y, and z. Then, while we are still talking, he will call our CEO over and say “I think we need to focus on this particular issue, for reasons x,y,z” without mentioning our discussion.”

      James isn’t giving the OP a chance to get to the CEO first. That particular example makes me think this is long-established self-aggrandizing behavior on his part. That doesn’t establish whether it is currently deliberate or not, but my guess is that at some point in his life it might well have been a conscious strategy.

      Reply
  20. hayling

    I just started reading Feminist Fight Club (an office survival guide for a sexist workplace), and she talks about tactics for combatting guys like James. As mentioned by another commenter, it’s a type of sexism that is less overt than your boss calling you “Sweetie” but just as insidious.

    Reply
  21. anonymous for this

    I… have a question related to this that I’ve been trying to draft as a letter to AAM for a long time now! And in my case it’s a woman at my level who is taking credit in more concrete ways (claiming on her c.v. that demonstrably collaborative work we did — think, both of our names listed on a conference program for a presentation that we wrote and delivered together — was solely hers). We’re in academia so the credit thing is a loaded issue for career advancement, but because it’s so loaded neither my supervisor nor I quite know how to approach her about it. Because there’s another co-creator/author she also doesn’t credit for something else, we’re unsure if it’s deliberate or if she’s just unaware — but she’s been in this field for quite a long time and really should know that you don’t do this. I also suspect that she’s going to respond by telling me that no, this is how it’s done in *her* area of the field, which does have somewhat different conventions than my area…. but they’re not THAT different.

    Reply
    1. Student

      Read your own comment again. You are afraid of confronting this co-worker, and looking for any excuse to avoid doing so. Your co-worker is stealing credit for your work.

      What’s more important to you:
      (1) your own career, getting credit for your work, and working with people who recognize your accomplishments,
      or
      (2) making sure your co-worker is never upset with you, no matter how much she upsets you – your career takes a back seat to never having to raise your voice

      Reply

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