What to Do When People Take Credit for Your Work

That feeling of satisfaction after a job well done can easily fizzle when a co-worker or boss takes credit for your ideas or accomplishments.

When people take credit for your work or idea, it makes you feel as if you don’t matter. “We don’t like unfairness in life, generally,” said executive coach Michele Woodward. “Why would you let someone take credit for your idea and not raise a stink?”

But people often worry that challenging bosses or co-workers in public can lead to repercussions and hurt team dynamics. Nonetheless, it’s important to claim ideas as your own, Woodward added: “I suggest people speak up immediately when someone attempts to steal your stuff, because the more time that elapses, the harder it is to assert your claim to ownership.”

When you don’t assert yourself, it harms your chances of receiving due recognition. Take the case of Robert Noell (not his real name), the most junior developer on a team working on a big contest website for a major bank.

After the site launched and contest votes began streaming in, the project lead accidentally wiped the live database. The client, unsurprisingly unhappy, threatened to sue. “I wrote a script to comb through server logs and recreate the vote entries, and everything was back to normal within 30 minutes,” Noell said.

Unfortunately, it was the project lead, not Noell, who ended up recognized at a companywide meeting for his leadership and quick thinking. Because Noell didn’t want to rock the boat, he only mentioned his accomplishment to his boss and a middle manager. At his next performance review, ironically, he ended up marked down for not working well with teams.

On the upside, other developers recognized Noell’s accomplishment, and recommended him to lead his own projects after that, so his hard work wasn’t a complete waste. But if he had it to do over again, he would have communicated the work he did more widely: “Had I right away sent a technical email discussing what I did to recover to the entire team and management, it would have made it hard for anyone else to take credit.”

Or take the case of Stacy Caldwell (also not her real name), who’s worked as a head of infrastructure at a tech company. When men took credit for the way she explained tech, she began putting her explanations on a blog, creating a time-stamped record. If the information isn’t for public consumption, she puts it in a company wiki. She also sends emails as follow-ups to conversations, generating a paper trail.

For Contractors

Contractors also must take care that they’re recognized for their work. That can sometimes be difficult, as regular employees will sometimes try to seize all the credit for things that contractors do.

During a period of self-employment, software developer Jamie Grimmett (not his real name) had a client who strung him along for several months, making him reach out to vendors, find a perfect solution for them, and write up a detailed scope document. After all that hard work, the client took the document to an overseas firm, which performed the work at a lower rate.

“I didn’t really have any legal recourse, but I felt really depressed and angry about it because I had turned down other work because they had expressed their intent so strongly,” Grimmett said. Now he requires his clients to sign an hourly agreement for his research: “I’ve lost clients who were scared off by that, but I figure if they aren’t willing to pay for exploratory work for their benefit, I don’t want to work with them.”

Putting things in writing is a surefire way to ensure you get what you deserve.

For Managers

Woodward recommends that recruiters and hiring managers ask interviewees about the last time they had a disagreement in the office. “This question will shine a light on whether ‘everyone else is a jerk,’ which indicates that the speaker is probably condescending, and could illuminate communication style, self-awareness, and perception,” she said. That, in turn, could help head off management problems later—including employees taking credit for others’ work.

3 Responses to “What to Do When People Take Credit for Your Work”

  1. Not My Real Name

    I had a manager pull this on me when I was a subcontract employee at a consulting firm – not mentioning names but it started with a ‘D’ and ended with ‘eloitte’. I put in about five hundred hours, designing and building an app with another subcontractor, and when I was on my pre-planned and widely announced vacation, I had to deal with phone calls from coworkers for the first three days (until my phone battery mercifully died and my car was a mile away from my campsite) because the detailed instructions I wrote for deploying the application were apparently written in a language the server administrators did not know how to read – English. At the project wrap-up, the manager took credit for the app on behalf of himself and the full-time employees who had nothing to do with it. The oyher sub and I were released from our contracts. Since then, I draw the line at 60 hour weeks and only work that long (maybe 70 hours) during production issue resolution. No more 117 hour or 93 hour weeks from me.

  2. For contract work, I have to think the employer and captive employees taking credit for your work is normal. After all, they hired the personnel needed to solve a problem they defined. In return the contractor received a giant check for the work. The work always ends when the design, generation and debug of the job is completed per the employer provided specifications. After you are gone, there’s nothing you can do about it anyhow.

  3. I did the whole paper trail thing with my ideas in a few old workplaces, but who wants to read that? If you try to show your (virtual) paper trail to someone in management, they don’t want to read all that–and after all the protege of the VP of Whatnot has already got credit for your idea/your work, and who wants to start that fight? I had my paper trail, and my own personal satisfaction of knowing what I had done… and that’s it. In one case, the person who took credit was an avowed opponent of the idea and fought it every step until it was obviously successful… and then retroactively claimed credit. That’s life, and office politics, and if you fight it, you will earn that dreaded “not a team player” “sour grapes” label after you lose.