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What Are Your Rights if a Co-Worker Steals Your Idea?

written by: •edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 5/21/2011

What if you write an outstanding report for management after a detailed analysis of a problem or issue you found at work and then find out your co-worker submitted a report that is blatantly similar to your report? Do you have any rights? Jean Scheid offers real-world answers.

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    Is it Your Work?

    Silhouette Stealing Novelist Nora Roberts said of plagiarism, “Certainly the plagiarism, and dealing with the fallout of it, was the most difficult thing I've ever faced since I started writing." We’ve all heard of the infamous who take credit for another’s work, but what about plagiarism in the workplace?

    Most businesses dealing with computer software development, innovation and architecture, to name a few, have harsh rules when it comes to plagiarism but not between co-workers. Workers in these environments often sign confidentiality agreements and beyond the wording of “not revealing secrets," additional wording is included.

    Those additional terms and conditions in these confidentiality agreements spell out clearly your invention or ideas are considered proprietary information of the company—not protected by copyright laws.

    In other circumstances, if a co-worker takes credit for a project you worked long and hard on, how do you handle this situation?

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    The Ruling Venue

    First off, if you feel your work has been stolen, copied and used by a co-worker, it’s really not a legal (in-court) issue per se. In fact, most industries deal with plagiarism as an internal issue and if you work for a company with strict rules on submitting your own work, most likely there are specific policies and procedures for you to report the plagiarism.

    Basically, don’t expect to file a lawsuit and win, although it’s possible for anyone to sue anyone for anything if they find a lawyer to take their case. Even if your case goes before a judge, they will look to the company’s policies and procedures on plagiarism or instruct the company owners to handle the problem on their own.

    If you can’t claim your work is yours and fight back in a legal venue, what are your options?

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    Use Judgment and Moving On

    As an employer for many years, there have been times when one employee has come to me and said, “Joan stole my idea!" or “John read my report, copied it and submitted it as his own!" In other circumstances, an idea of one may be revealed in a meeting format when offered by another in front of a crowd.

    When it comes to plagiarism in the workplace, I suggest using some of the tips below.

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    Confrontation

    Agree to Be a Part of the Project You can always confront your co-worker calmly or obtain the aid of a supervisor to help state your case to the offending co-worker, but chances are, confrontations only turn into battles and tense situations. Instead of outright accusing, try to find a way to be involved in the idea and insert elements that show your originality. Work with the co-worker from the get go, even if the idea was yours to begin with—there’s always a way to make the idea a success and in the end, isn’t that what you wanted? Management will see both of you worked hard on the project and reward both, not just the stolen idea offender.

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    Shout It From the Rooftop!

    Ethics experts often suggest you make your idea known long before its creation. For example, a service advisor at one of my car dealerships had an idea on technician work by efficiency, and wanted to develop a way to track it. Instead of working silently and hoping no one would steal his idea, he asked for a meeting with me and the service director and was given the green light to go ahead. Because this worker revealed his idea to management before researching it, most wouldn’t be foolish enough to submit the same idea as their own.

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    Idea Support

    Another option is to enlist the help of others who know the idea or project was yours to begin with. Have them speak up and say, “Sally you mentioned you were going to explore that avenue didn’t you?" or “Wow, I saw Sally working on that very same project—you two should work together!" Not only does this diffuse the situation, you’re now given a chance to work on your idea. Do it with grace and be encouraged if the project works out, it may have been your idea, but without the help of supporters, you may never get to be involved at all.

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    Workplace Policies

    Workplace Policies Unfortunately the workplace is a little different, when compared to schools, colleges, and universities, who offer strict policies on plagiarism for students.

    Don’t expect your employer to implement a plagiarism policy. Employers want team work and if you’ve ever been employed by anyone, you’ve probably heard the saying, “There is no I in team."

    It is morally wrong for someone to steal your idea and present it as his own, however, in a work environment, if the idea, process or invention works, the employer is only happy with the outcome or a successful job well done. In reality, employers don’t want to mediate fights between co-workers; basically they will consider it a he said, she said situation.

    Frustrating as it is, when it comes to workplace plagiarism, it’s best to be tactful, step back and find a way to be part of your initial idea—not enter into lengthy arguments—this only makes you look like a complainer, and employers want to avoid employee confrontation or level it at the get go so the office environment is a happy one.

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    References

    Nora Roberts Quote - http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/plagiarism.html

    Ethics Education Library, Plagiarism, Integrity and Workplace Deviance: A Criterion Study retrieved at http://ethics.iit.edu/eelibrary/node/2938

    Image Credits:

    Silhouette - Sxc.hu/mzacha

    Yes or No - Sxc.hu/Cieleke

    Closet Clutter - Sxc.hu/sraburton






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