Hey, that was my idea!

PlagiarismA recent Wakefield Research survey of 1,000 American officer workers showed that more than two-thirds felt “…the worst type of boss is one who steals our ideas.” I agree. But, I'd add that the worst type of employee is one who steals ideas from her co-workers.

I've never worked for a boss who stole my ideas and presented them as his own. But, I have seen prospective clients borrow Peppercom ideas presented in a pitch, and then implement them either on their own or with some other firm. Sadly, while a firm can try to protect its ideas with an 'intellectual capital' warning on the PowerPoint and leave-behind, any lawyer worth his salt will tell you such verbiage won't stand-up in court.

Getting back to intellectual capital theft in the workplace, I can tell you we've experienced it at Peppercom. In one of the more egregious examples, an otherwise exemplary account supervisor repeatedly presented her team's media placements as her own. “Oh, I've known John Smith at Fast Company for years. He always takes my calls,” she'd tell the pleased client (even though a junior AE had secured the hit).

This went on for several months until the entire team (and this blogger) met with the client for an in-person quarterly review. After exchanging pleasantries, the client contact began raving about “Abigail”, her amazing media contacts and the quality of her placements.

I looked around the conference room to see looks of astonishment followed by rage. Sensing what had happened, I interrupted the client to say, “We do have a great team and Abigail does do a nice job of managing the moving parts. But, the results you're speaking of were Peppercom achievements, not just Abigail's.”

Knowing she'd been outed, Abigail blushed every shade of red and began stammering, “Steve's right. I'm very proud of these results.” She had the gall to continue claiming sole credit for the results. Rather than have the team pounce on her and begin pummeling the bejesus out of Abigail in front of the unsuspecting client, I instead moved the conversation onto other subjects.

Later, back at the ranch, we sat Abigail down and asked why she'd taken credit for the team's work. She burst into tears, and said she didn't realize the client was interpreting her remarks in such a way. “Yeah, sure,” I said, 'I'll bet you also have a bridge in Brooklyn you'd like to sell.” I told her she'll be fired if it happened again. It did. And, we fired her.

Taking credit for a co-worker's accomplishments tells me two things:

– If the employee will lie about this, she'll lie about anything.
– She doesn't have the ability to produce results on her own, so she claims credit for a subordinate's work.

The latter is key. This only happens when a person is in a position of power and believes her lieutenants would be too afraid to out her for intellectual capital theft. And, she's right (until a public opportunity such as the quarterly review described above occurs).

Taking credit for someone else's ideas isn't just petty and stupid. It's amateurish and belongs on Dorothy Crenshaw's list of Seven Most Amateur Things in PR.

If you're not good enough to achieve media results on your own, I suggest you find an altogether different career path. The Garden State Parkway has immediate openings for toll booth operators, for example. That said, they will fire you if you claim credit for collecting $.35 from a motorist who just handed the change to Anthony in Lane Eight.

5 thoughts on “Hey, that was my idea!

  1. Ugh. What a terrible situation, Lovetorun69. I feel for you. As you said, you need the job to pay bills, but I’d get out of that place ASAP.

  2. My current employer does this CONSTANTLY! I don’t even know what to do about it. It’s a very small shop, so I really don’t have a place to voice my objections. Also, it took a while to find this job and getting fired would be very inconvenient right now. Although, getting fired is rarely convenient.
    I knew there had to be some reason why I had such limited contact with clients. Everything is communicated through my boss, which slows certain processes down to a crawl. It’s frustrating. Every agency that I’ve ever worked for ENCOURAGED you to develop a solid working relationship with the clients you serviced. I only became aware of their willingness to poach my ideas when a client cc’ed me on an email detailing several pitches that I came up with and were shot down for various reasons.
    There was no discussion, explanation or a sense of embarrassment about it. The conversation moved forward as if no theft had occurred. And then it kept happening! Almost as if exposure gave this person carte blanche to pick my pocket whenever they felt like it. I’m mollified by the fact that I will eventually (hopefully sooner than later) leave this person’s employment. Until then, my continuing ability to pay bills has to trump any dwelling over past and future transgressions. It’s completely unfair, but some of us just have to deal until there’s a job market that offers us real options.

  3. Thanks, Julie. It was so overt that the decision was fairly easy. We either fired the idea thief or risked losing the very talented junior executives who were producing results.

  4. Great blog post, RepMan.
    Kudos for firing the women who took credit for the the work of the account team. Other firms would have turned a blind eye, with the rest of the team being left demoralized.

  5. “If they will steal for you, they will steal from you…” said one of my mentors, Barnett Helzberg, jr., (build Helzberg Diamonds into a national leader; sold his business to Warren Buffett about 15 years ago). Taking credit for another colleague’s work is a cancer that simply must be cut out of a team.
    Great leaders have the mirrow and the window approach: when given praise, leaders are windows and let that flow right through to the team. When given a hard time, leaders are a mirror and take and reflect the negative emotion, protecting the team.
    Thanks for sharing, Steve.