Are your colleagues stealing credit for your work?

Do you work with credit-stealing colleagues? People who put their name on your work or take credit for your ideas without hesitation. Get used to it. An epidemic of work theft is ahead.

The future of work involves people collaborating in digital teams. As more work is done online through collaboration platforms, it is harder to know who contributes what.

Use of technology brings the issue of “work theft” to the fore.

Technology should make measurement of individual performance in digital teams easier and maybe it will as collaboration software develops. For now, how do we know if someone deserves extra credit for their leadership, communication or other ‘soft skills’ when a team collaborates online?

In physical team environments, one can see who does what and it is easier to measure performance intangibles: whether someone mentored a junior team member, for example. That is harder in a digital team setting that measures performance by outputs.

The future of work also involves greater cross-boundary collaboration: employees working together across countries or with suppliers, researchers or other stakeholders. Again, there is a risk of not accurately measuring performance or giving sufficient work credit.

Growth in remote workers is another consideration. If four people sit together with their boss at work, it is easier to gauge tangible and intangible contributions. If that team is scattered at work and home on different days, assessing how to share credit for a project may be harder.

Digital communication compounds the challenge of work theft. It is too easy for someone to latch on to your idea or imply they contributed to it via email. These email con artists pretend they are working on weekends or late at night with a quick reply through their smartphone.

It is too easy for someone to latch on to your idea or imply they contributed to it via email.

Rising work pressures will also fuel growth in work theft. Low wage growth and declining job security will encourage some to misappropriate the work of others. Worried about losing their job, they will pretend they have contributed beyond what they did, to the detriment of colleagues.

Moreover, too many companies in my experience have limited frameworks or processes for sharing work credit or resolving disputes about it. Often, project teams do not discuss upfront how credit for an outcome will be shared or have leaders who are skilled in ensuring all team members benefit according to their contribution and are appropriately recognised.

Worse, some companies are hopeless at measuring outputs. They measure staff by how long they spend at work rather than what they produce. How can an employee expect appropriate recognition for their work when the company cannot measure outputs adequately?

Then there is political correctness. Weak-willed bosses want every team member to share in the credit, when some contributed more than others. They lack the nerve to allocate credit appropriately or have conflict with low performers, for fear of offending them. Their concern is team morale, not recognising outperformers and underperformers.

This issue is broader than the ethics of taking credit for someone’s work. As people change jobs frequently in the gig economy they will need detailed information on their work history. Receiving appropriate credit for work will help them succeed at their current employer or find work at another.

The scary part is some companies might have less incentive to ensure work efforts are appropriately credited. They do not want staff changing employers every 18 months or pushing for larger pay rises or bonuses. Restricting work credit reduces employee bargaining power.

Let’s hope I am wrong on this issue. The move by more companies to an agile approach, where staff work in smaller, self-directed teams, offers hope. Workers in such teams, in theory, should find it harder to misappropriate work. Much depends on the industry and style of work.

When employees are connected constantly through screens, it’s more difficult to tell who has contributed what.

For example, it is easier to compare how much code software programmers wrote for a project than how much five marketing staff contributed to an advertising campaign. Measuring performance and allocating credit can be hard in creative industries with subjective outputs.

I once worked with a sub-editor who spent an hour concocting a short headline for a story. It was time well spent: the work was among the best headlines I had read and encouraged people to read the story. Yet on a pure output basis, spending that much time to produce seven words was dreadful and assessing the sub-editor’s contribution to the story’s success was hard.

In time, technology should aid better assessment and measurement of work credit. Algorithms will scan team communication, work habits, task sequencing and project outcomes – and unlike human managers, have black-and-white assessment. Many people will keep digital logs of their work credit and have an electronic work “passport” in future. Who knows?

Sadly, that’s a long way off. My hunch today is that more people feel as if they receive insufficient credit for their work or suffer from others, including their boss, who brazenly take credit for it. And they have less power to stand up to work thieves and seek an apology or other remediation.

My hunch today is that more people feel as if they receive insufficient credit for their work or suffer from others, including their boss.

I do not know of many work thieves who happily email their team, superior and wider organisation to say a peer should have received more credit for their work. If they do, it is usually in a way that makes them look like a good manager who is eager to share credit.

Next time you work on a project, consider asking, “How will credit for a successful outcome be measured, shared and recognised?” Or, “Is there a workflow chart to record who does what and when, so that credit is accurately recorded?” Granted, it’s a difficult conversation. But being proactive with work thieves and putting them on notice is better than a reactive approach.

Complaining that you did not receive appropriate credit for your work after the event could be career limiting if your boss sees you as high maintenance, difficult and not a team player, even though you are justified to demand appropriate recognition of your contribution.

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