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What to do when someone steals your idea at work

4 Jun 2019

Has someone else ever taken credit for your idea at work? Here’s what you should do.

When you’re at work, your ideas can be one of the strongest currencies you have. So when someone steals your idea, it can feel quite personal, especially when that person presents the idea as their own and gets praised for it.

But what should you do in that scenario? There can be different ways of handling this situation depending on the context. For example, we’ve previously discussed the worries job candidates have regarding giving away ideas during the interview stage for a job.

If you’re not hired and those ideas are then used, it can feel extremely shady, but there’s usually no guarantee that someone else in the organisation didn’t also present that idea. After all, no idea is truly original.

But when you are already working in a company and a colleague blatantly steals your idea, you will naturally want to speak up.

Don’t react straight away

Neuroscientists estimate that more than 90pc of our brain funtions are automatic. That means they’re formed out of habitual behaviour or they’re instantly reactive based on our thinking habits.

This leads to trigger reactions, meaning as soon as we’re presented with a situation, we react instantly to a compulsion, but this is rarely the right choice. In reality, you should always ignore your first instinctive response, take a minute to reflect and make an informed and thoughtful choice about what to do next.

Evaluate the situation

If you’re reading this article, you may have already gotten to this step and decided that this person did indeed steal your idea. However, it’s important to look at the facts and ensure you haven’t jumped to any conclusions.

Is this idea definitely yours? Remember, as we said, there are no truly new ideas, but equally, if you brought something to a colleague and they heralded it as a good idea, it’s safe to say its relatively new. Secondly, did the person neglect to give you due credit for an idea or did they blatantly pass it off as their own?

Thirdly, is this an idea worth fighting over? Of course, you will feel like all of your ideas are valuable, but at the same time not everything deserves a massive pat on the back and complaining about someone stealing a small input might do more harm than good. Know when to take it to the next level and know when to simply let it go.

Talk to the person

If someone steals your idea and it’s big enough to bother you, even after you’ve taken stock of the situation, it might be worth talking to them about it. If they neglected to attribute the idea to you, consider asking them to do so. If it was merely an oversight, it’s not a big ask and they should know that it will help you professionally.

If they did say it was their idea, be calm and collected and ask them why this happened after you had already brought the idea to them. Giving them the benefit of the doubt while also giving them a chance to admit their mistake might prevent it from happening in future.

If possible, you might be comfortable bringing it to your immediate supervisor. It’s important not to come across as complaining, but rather simply bringing it to their attention in a professional manner. Any evidence that it was indeed your idea is always good to have in this case.

Prevention is better than cure

As the old saying goes, ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me’. If someone steals your idea, either intentionally or otherwise, you shouldn’t feel discouraged in bringing future ideas to the table. It’s how you grow professionally and how you shine as an employee, especially to upper management. However, if you’ve had an idea stolen because you said it in passing to someone, it’s good to put preventative measures in place the next time you have an idea.

For a start, send the idea in an email. That way, you have a time-stamped ‘paper’ trail of your idea and when you presented it. Secondly, cc the relevant parties. This is where even one other person on an email thread can be vital, bearing witness to your idea before anyone else can lay claim to it. Finally, don’t include every single detail of the idea. People who claim ideas they didn’t come up with are rarely able to execute it effectively, so make sure you are naturally the go-to person for more information on this idea. Even something as simple as ‘I have a few other ideas about how to execute this, if you’re interested,’ can help you keep ownership of the idea.

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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