I have had first hand experience with a back stabber. I just completed a report on a new idea I had and I wanted another opinion on it before I presented it to my boss. I asked a coworker to look at it and tell me what she thought. She in turn changed a few aspects of the report and handed it to her boss as her own idea.
My immediate response was uncontrollable anger. I wanted to confront her right then but I knew I needed time to cool-off. The next day I confronted my coworker about the situation. She did not deny doing it however she told me she had had the same idea and did not have time to do anything about it. She accused me of stealing her idea and quickly writing a report to take to my boss. She did not want me getting credit for her idea. I explained to her that I had no idea what she was talking about and was very disappointed she did not just ask me.
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY DR. JOHN BURTON
Dear Ripped Off,
Yes. That does sound like a classic case of back-stabbing. And it won’t surprise you to hear that the theft of ideas, and people taking credit for work they have not done, is happening in offices all around the world. So, take heart that you’re not the only one being victimized…
But to help, let’s step back and look at this problem from a distance. It’s obvious that you’ve really worked yourself into a frenzy over this predicament.
If you had known in advance that your co-worker was going to steal your idea, would you have acted any differently? Would you have diligently written your idea down and mailed it to yourself in a registered letter? That would have provided evidence of the date and time you thought of it, just in case you ever needed such evidence in a law suit… but is taking her to court realistic? After all, who really “owns” the idea? Morally you may own it, but in the eyes of the law, your company owns your idea (unless your employment contract says otherwise). Which may be a shocker, but it’s true.
So, what you’re really looking for is recognition for your “brilliance”. Unfortunately, going to the Boss and complaining, even with copious notes proving your case, is going to place you in a war environment. The end result may be that your boss is skeptical, and though he might credit you with the idea, it will leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. And of course, your co-worker will be your mortal enemy with more knives out to slay you.
You have to ask yourself if this idea is worth fighting for. If you just dreamed up the idea for “post-it” notes, then it may be… but if this is just one more idea, and there are lots more to come from your bright mind, then perhaps you should consider backing off.
The dilemma is that the office environment works best when there is a free flow of ideas. I may be the first to think of a particular new product or process, but three other people may come up with successive variations that improve on my idea, and in the end who can say which of us came up with “the idea” that proved to be of benefit to the company? Employers count on their employees to engage in this type of creativity and smart corporations ensure that everyone who participates is recognized.
Knowing that your company wants all of you contributing ideas, all the time, so that the company is more successful, what can you do to ensure that you get recognized (and maybe promoted)? Here are a few tips:
1. Speak up!
Make sure the Boss hears your ideas at meetings, in emails, in memos — establish yourself as a constant “source” of bright thinking and good ideas within your team.
2. Work Hard.
Be seen as the person on the team that always does their homework. Never come to a meeting unprepared. Think through what the agenda is, and add your insights and ideas, in front of everyone. You’ll get recognized.
3. Push yourself to the front.
That doesn’t mean you have to be “in- their-face”, but it does mean that you should seek out opportunities where you can show your abilities to best advantage. (eg. trade shows, trade publications, special committees)
In the long term, wise companies will ensure that all employees who participate in the creation of new ideas are recognized. New ideas are one of the engines of economic growth after all.
But the core challenge raised by your letter is “How to respond to unfair conduct by a fellow employee or manager?”
I’d like to throw this open to responses from other readers who have faced a similar challenge, and discovered creative solutions. I’d also like to hear whether they thought their own behavior was ethical. In addition, tell me about corporate policies that help to deal with this complex issue.
It’s easy to say that the letter writer has been the victim of unethical office politics. It’s less easy to say just what an ethical response would be!
Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.
Take the high road,
Dr. John Burton
Dr. John Burton LL.B. M.B.A. M.Div. Ph.D. is an ethicist, mediator, lawyer and theologian. He has taught alternative dispute resolution at Queen’s Law School and Ethics at the Schulich School of Business. John was recently located in Prince Rupert, B.C., Canada, working with Canada’s aboriginal communities. He is now teaching at UBC, Okanagan Campus.
Publication note: This letter was originally published in 2002. We are republishing the best letters from Office-Politics and integrating them with our blog format.
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