coworker who steals ideas

Angela (not her real name) sent an email saying:

“I am afraid to take days off or go on holidays for fear that the work in my department will not be safe. (idea stealing) This happened a year ago and was not handled by my old manager…. Any suggestions?”

It’s a tough situation when you can’t trust your coworkers. There are typically two reasons that a coworker might steal your ideas. The first, and most innocuous reason, is that the coworker didn’t realized that you thought of it as ‘your idea.’ In his (her) mind it was an idea that came up as part of a team discussion. Then a situation came up where the idea was appropriate, and he used it.

When something like this happens, a brief and light-hearted private comment is the best approach. Something like: “Hey John, the next time I come up with a great idea like xyz, why not let me use it first?!” If John has indeed tread on your toes unintentionally, he will apologize, and be more careful in the future.

When the nice approach doesn’t work

Unfortunately, the other scenario is that your coworker’s actions were not so innocent. When this happens, there are four things you should do:

  1. Have a direct conversation. Get straight to the point, and don’t feel the need to go into too much detail. I.e., “John, that was my work you just used. Don’t ever do that again.”
  2. Lock and protect documents as frequently and as best you can
  3. Document when these situations occur
  4. Don’t tell people about you ideas until you’re going to use them, then tell everybody

If the situation is recurring, it also doesn’t hurt to bring it to your boss’s attention, and ask his (her) thoughts on how you should deal with it. This keeps him in the loop, and can prevent him from also becoming a victim of an unscrupulous coworker.

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