Bullish: What To Do When Some Jerky McJerkface Takes Credit For Your Ideas

Let’s hear today from a reader I’ll call Violet Newstead (that was Lily Tomlin’s character in the epic ‘80s movie Nine to Five):

I have a co-worker that is constantly taking credit for things I’ve said. He is new, so I have to explain things to him a lot. Then when our boss comes over to see what we are doing, he will repeat things I have said to him, for no reason other than to sound smart, and my boss smiles at him like he is a damn genius whereas I get zero respect from my boss when I always end up doing the work of both of them, and my own work. I’ve never felt the need to be showy of everything I accomplish in a day, since it’s obvious everything is getting done that is on my plate, but he is making me feel like I need to be showing my boss every time I finish something. I want to call out the newbie for what he’s doing but I don’t know what the most appropriate way of doing so is.

Thanks, I love your articles. They are seriously helpful to someone trying to make their way through life as a woman in a man’s world (I’m a website developer. I’m always the only girl with like 10 guys around me).

Oh, Violet! I’m sorry you are dealing with such an obnoxious work environment.

First, the bright side: the things you say are the sorts of things your boss smiles at and finds ingenious!

But seriously, this situation sucks, and there’s no entirely un-awkward way out. I am reminded of an episode of Friends wherein some guy in the coffee shop takes Ross’s hat (maybe it was Chandler’s hat) and won’t give it back, and Ross, Chandler, and Joey come to the sad realization that they don’t actually have any better tools for dealing with bullying than they did as kids. (“Give it baaa-aack!”)

I do have some ideas, though. Some of them more devious than others.

Deal with the problem directly

Okay, let’s start with the obvious. It might be possible that the newbie – I’ll call him Joey McCopypants – doesn’t realize what he’s doing, or he’s so nervous around the boss that he spurts out any smart thing that comes to mind (and it just so happens that all the smart things in his head actually came from you). Maybe he even feels guilty.

You could talk to Joey directly. “Hey Joey, I’ve noticed that you’ve begun quoting me to the boss! I’m flattered that you’ve listened so carefully to the things I’ve said, but sometimes it comes out as though you’re saying those were your ideas. Could you watch out for that?”

Another great word to use here: When he passes ideas on to the boss, ask him to “clarify” where the idea came from. It’s hard to argue with a request to “clarify.” Who the hell is against clarity?

You could also explicitly talk to the boss. When you do, don’t make it all about feeeeelings. This doesn’t necessarily need to be an interpersonal situation. (See Bullish: How to Win When the Workplace Depends on Feelings).

Instead, make it a factual, matter-of-fact talk about how you have been doing a lot of work both within your job description and outside of it (by training this guy), and you want to make sure your contributions are documented when it comes time for promotions, performance reviews, and raises.

This is completely reasonable, and in fact might improve your position by pushing against lady-stereotypes. Some bosses will respect you more when it’s clear that you’re in charge of your own career trajectory and aiming towards a promotion.

Backhanded compliment of the day: Point out what a good “trainee” this guy is! And how much you are enjoying training him!

When the boss stops by and asks how it’s going, jump in and give Joey credit for learning something new (that you taught him). In the process of complimenting him, you are pointing out your own competence (and training skills).

Furthermore, perhaps you actually are quite good at training, or would like to move into management?

These are excellent reasons to initiate a discussion with your boss about how, in your recent role as an informal trainer to Mr. McCopypants, you have realized that you have more to contribute and that you would like to expand on those skills as you take on more responsibilities within the company.

You can compliment Joey as a “fast learner,” which is a very polite way of pointing out how much you’ve been teaching him.

Or, stop training him (while pointing out that you’ve been training him).

If you just want to get back to designing websites, you could also talk to the boss about taking off the training wheels on this guy.

For instance: You’ve really enjoyed having a mini management experience by helping to train someone, but you wonder if the boss would like you to prioritize your own work or helping Joey. If your boss would like you to prioritize your own work, perhaps someone else could be assigned to help Joey.

These conversations are always easier when you make it all about being totally willing to do whatever the boss thinks is top priority – the implication, of course, being that you can’t actually do everything at once.

Can you just let Joey fail? At least temporarily?

Why, exactly, are you doing this guy’s work? Can you stop and let him fail?

You say, “He is new, so I have to explain things to him a lot.” Are there other people he could be asking, but he keeps coming to you because you keep indulging him? Try something like, “I can help you with that as soon as I finish dealing with our client’s emergency.” Or even, “I need the whole day to finish this project by deadline – let’s meet tomorrow morning and I’ll show you the ropes on that whole system.”

You could also set Joey up to expose himself (well, not in that way). Email your good ideas to your boss before telling them to Mr. Copypants. Then, when Mr. Copypants says something clever that the boss read in your email two hours ago, Mr. Copypants will, theoretically, be exposed for the little parrot he is.

Get credit for training Joey McCopypants, while avoiding confrontation entirely!

Okay, here’s what I think I would do.

Whether you want to do more training and management in the future or not, why not grab credit for what you’ve done so far, while also getting your name on something?

Email the boss, suggesting that document all the things you’ve taught Joey in a “training manual,” ostensibly so next time the training process can go more smoothly and quickly. For example:

Dear Boss,

I had a thought I wanted to share. Joey McCopypants has been asking a lot of good questions lately! For instance:
– Where do the big blue files go?
– How do you program this thing that needs programmed?
– What does HTTP really mean and why am I crying in the men’s room?

I was thinking that most new hires probably have these questions. While I’m happy to answer them, I think it might save time for new hires in the future if I wrote up a short training document that answered these questions. That would really take a lot off of my plate and other people’s plates in relation to getting new hires up to speed.

By the way, Joey’s been asking great questions and has learned a lot in the last few weeks!

Best,
Violet

I had to sleep on your question for a few nights to come up with that. But seriously, write the training manual, and put your name on it. You’ll establish expertise and get credit for possibly years.

Enlist your peers, especially those who see what’s going on

Make a point of giving others credit and they might start to return the favor. Is there someone else in the office who does good work and is underrecognized? Speak up in a meeting or send a thank-you email while cc’ing some higher-ups. Every Violet needs a Doralee (that was Dolly Parton’s character in Nine to Five).

Quantify everything, collect evidence, formalize your contributions

I say this all the time, but that’s because I really mean it. Keep lists of what you get done – for your resume, for meetings about raises, for possible grad school recommendations later, and in case someone steals your ideas.

Find a way to share these lists without appearing to be making a naked credit grab. For instance, start “briefing” your boss on issues of concern. As in, “This week, I completed A, B, and C, and noticed that in two of the three projects, X came up. I wanted to put this on your radar as something we should think about doing Y with in the future.” Maybe your boss will become accustomed to one of these every week – a little bullet list of accomplishments under the guise of informing the boss about potential problems before they arise, or proposing improvements for next time.

Heck, maybe you’re trying a new time management system (see this Bullish Life column) and improving productivity by logging every hour you spend on the job. Keep good records and you’ll find ways to use the data collected to your advantage.

Own your projects

Gravitate towards projects you can complete from start to finish. If you do 90% of something, it’s possible for your contribution to be downplayed; if you do 100%, it’s a lot harder.

If you do only 25% of something, try to claim the most visible part of the project. If thinking about this all the time feels self-serving (it is), keep in mind that half of your coworkers are thinking this way also, and that there’s nothing wrong with being self-serving in a job (the company exists to make money; you are there to make money; there’s not a lot of moral high ground here) as long as you are providing excellent value for what you are being paid

Become so good you cannot be denied

Comedians say that a lot, because it’s really hard to get recognized (or paid) in the standup world. Become so good you can’t be denied. You know Donald Glover from Community? We did a couple of shows together in Queens … in 2009. So, not that long ago. He’s was so good he couldn’t be denied – so funny that, even if you were jealous, you just had to admit he was fucking hilarious. I’m sure success didn’t just drop in his lap, but the truth is that it all starts with the work. Make sure your work is undeniable.

There’s also a penumbra around your work. Plenty of people are good at one thing, but don’t have the social skills, networking skills, or business acumen to really develop their careers. (See Bullish: F*ck Corporate Personality Tests and Take Control of Your Personality.) Maybe these auxiliary skills are where you can develop an advantage.

Also, improve your “Return on Employee.” Anytime you make money directly, you increase your value to the company. If the clients like you, you increase your value to the company. Even if your job isn’t sales, no company complains when you make a sale (see Bullish: How to Sell Without Selling.) Do your work in the office, but also get out into the world.

In sum…

Finally, recognize that maybe your boss just likes this guy. Who knows why? Maybe because he’s a dude, but maybe just because some people naturally like other people. This is responsible for both violent sectarianism and hot sex the world over.

Recognize and accept some arbitrariness in the workplace. Maybe your boss doesn’t like you that much (so make sure your work cannot be denied, and make other allies). Maybe your boss doesn’t care about credit or fairness and functions in a self-centered way in which it’s always the messenger who is shot/rewarded. In which case, bring the boss good news, and try to avoid bringing the boss bad news. Maybe the boss likes a heads-up before an idea is presented in a meeting (most do). Maybe the boss gives out favors and credit to people who do some stupid, superficial thing? That’s not unusual. Adapting to arbitrary systems is an important part of any job.

All workplaces are imperfect, and surely this is one of what will be many speedbumps. But you’re always allowed to speak up and take credit for your work and ideas (see Bullish: How to Communicate with Chutzpah.) In fact, others are doing so aggressively, and thus you must do so as well to compete fairly.

Think of Joey McCopypants as practice for all the bigger, badder, richer, more powerful, more intimidating jerkfaces who will later present themselves. As such, thank heavens you’re getting such good practice for being the mega-badass you will undoubtedly be in the future.

Good luck!
originally published on The Grindstone