I work in digital marketing. Several months ago a colleague, 'Mary,' and I worked together to develop a proposal for a monthly newsletter, which was approved. I do all the monthly work to produce it, and I have no issue with this.
But I recently realized Mary has been showing my work as her own to senior managers, despite not being involved since the early planning stages. I thought the first couple of instances may have been unintentional, until a colleague forwarded me a draft of "Mary's newsletter" where she'd removed evidence of the sender (ME!) to claim it as her own.
How should I proceed with my valor-stealing coworker? She's extremely friendly to me in all interactions and has no idea I discovered her dirty secret.
A small but appreciable tragedy of our remote-work age is the loss of petty workplace dramas that used to add intrigue to the sameness of the day. Remember gossiping about seeing that guy from marketing and that lady from IT sneaking out together? Remember the tiny thrill of trying to stifle laughter in a meeting because your work wife very obviously rolled their eyes? Remember office-wide freak-outs when someone’s lunch went missing from the communal fridge? At first blush, these may seem like stupid things to miss when we’ve suffered so many horrible losses—the lives of friends and family, the ability to see or hug those closest to us, millions of jobs—but for people who worked in an office pre-pandemic, that social fabric meant something that we haven’t fully grappled with in the past 13 months.
So thank you, Anonymous. I don’t want to trivialize your problem, which would absolutely keep me up at night if it were happening to me, but I know OOO readers well enough to know they will be gleeful to read about this juicy midscale injustice. Mary is officially the new enemy of this column, and I am grateful for her. (Consider this a plea for more questions about juicy small- and midscale injustices. Email me about all your trifling work problems.)
Now then. The climax of this saga, the moment when Mary deleted your name from your email, changed my philosophy on your question entirely, but we’ll get there. The sad truth is that subtle valor stealing happens all the time in the workplace. Often this is because an idea someone has heard becomes relevant in another meeting, and the someone who heard the idea brings it up—and “forgets” to give credit. This behavior is pervasive, and sometimes it’s not even worth dealing with, if it means the expense of your own sanity. (Of course, that doesn’t make it acceptable.) While we do love workplace capers, we are not looking to become full-time office detectives or scolds.
That said, these can be easy mistakes to make, and being hypervigilant about giving credit where due is crucial to being a good coworker. Remember the viral story about female Obama staffers’ strategy of “amplification,” where one woman would repeat a key point made by another woman, emphasizing the originator of the idea? That was necessary because research shows women are interrupted more, given less credit, and penalized for speaking up at work. So while I wouldn’t get too bent out of shape after an individual instance of not getting appropriate credit, I highly recommend everyone interrogate their own patterns in this arena, especially men and white people.
My colleague and friend Scott Rosenfield has always been exceptionally deliberate and strategic about giving people credit, even at the risk of underselling his own accomplishments, so I asked for his recommendations. “Everyone should be evaluated in the workplace based on how much they elevate those around them,” he told me. (He recommends former Intel CEO Andrew S. Grove’s book High Output Management for a larger discussion of this philosophy.) “In practice I think it's basically a habit. Make sure to always ask yourself who else should get credit and would feel sad about not getting the credit they deserve. It's helpful to have a work pal to run these things by who might point you to some of those blind spots at the start.”
OK, I’m sorry, Anonymous: I’ve spent a few hundred words offering advice about oversights and unconscious bias, when you’re dealing with an active thief. In your case, I’m fully in favor of good old-fashioned confrontation. There’s no upside in being a tattletale to your boss or HR (though making sure the boss is aware that you do the work, without naming Mary, is a wise move before performance-review season), but that doesn’t mean you need to sit back and watch Mary be an undermining jerk. Is there a way to tell her that you saw her email that stripped out your name without outing your other colleague as the one who shared it? (Or maybe your other colleague is OK with being the source?) Alternatively, since she appears to have claimed credit in multiple instances to multiple people, perhaps you could couch it in “I keep hearing …”-type terms.
If you do talk to her, don’t come in too hot. Without assigning blame or motivation, the key thing is to let her know you’ve noticed the trend, that you’re paying attention to it, and that you would like it not to happen again. And keep an eye out for opportunities to subtly mention to other colleagues (without bragging!) how much work you put into the newsletter—that’s a good way to shape the office narrative as to who is actually responsible. Then ask a trusted colleague about their pettiest workplace annoyance so you have a new juicy mini-drama to occupy your brain.