Ask a Recruiter: ‘What Can I Do About a Co-worker Who Takes Credit for My Work?’

When someone claims our work it's easy to want to confront them in the heat of the moment, but leading with empathy is key
Emily Durham, senior recruiter at Intuit (Photograph: Emily Durham)

Welcome to CB’s work-advice column featuring Emily Durham, a Toronto-based senior recruiter at Intuit, public speaker and content creator known for her funny and relatable TikToks about all things work. Each month, Durham answers reader questions on topics that affect our ability to thrive in our jobs, and offers her real-world insights on how to handle even the most rock-and-a-hard-place conundrums. Have a work-related question? Send it to [email protected].

Q: I’m really frustrated at work right now. My team recently had to pitch an idea to a client and I did about 80 per cent of the slide deck and the majority of the data analysis we presented. But after we successfully won the business, my co-worker sent an email to our team—including our boss—making it sound like she was the one who led the analysis work. I don’t want to seem petty, but I also don’t want anyone else taking credit for my work. What should I do?

Most people will spend 90,000 hours of their life working—that’s nearly 20 per cent of the average life span. With so much of our time spent not only at work, but with our co-workers, feeling supported and recognized by our colleagues plays a major role in our overall wellness. So it’s completely understandable that you’re frustrated by a situation where you feel like your contributions are being overlooked. A coworker taking credit for your work can feel incredibly unfair and can spark worry about how it may impact your recognition and growth at the company longer term. After all, what good is the great work you’re doing if nobody knows you did it?

In your situation, the first thing I recommend doing is reframing your thinking. It’s easy to jump to conclusions and assume your coworker has malicious intent, or is trying to cheat you out of well-deserved acknowledgement. It’s even easier to want to rush into calling them out or addressing the situation right away. But remember: No conflict is best resolved in the heat of the moment. Take some time to step away, ground yourself and regroup before drafting up that scathing email. 

Related: How to Navigate Conflict at Work

I’d encourage you to assume the best of intentions from this colleague—assume that there was no malice, ill intent or calculation behind this, and that it was an honest mistake, or at least a misunderstanding. When we go into difficult conversations actively seeing the best in the other party, we are much more likely to communicate with empathy and land on a better outcome. This mindset shift is often the difference between a heated back-and-forth that goes no where and an open and honest conversation about how you two can move forward as team members.

When you’re ready to speak to your co-worker directly, set up a 15-minute meeting with them. Conversations like this are always best in person, over the phone or on video to avoid any miscommunication or tone misinterpretations that can come with emails or instant messages. You want to begin the conversation on a positive note to avoid defensiveness from your colleague. This may mean thanking them for sending out that email to the team, or for contributing to the project in a specific way.

Next, share your perspective. When you do this, it’s important to avoid any language that is accusatory or harsh. Instead, speak about your interpretation of the events and how you feel; do not make statements about your co-worker, like “You lied about the work you did.” That will set a negative tone for the entire conversation. Instead, you may wish to say something like, “I wanted to hop on a call because I noticed in your email to the team that you conveyed that you were responsible for the data analysis portion of the project. It’s my perspective, based on previous emails and conversations, that I was leading this work. I want to understand if there was a miscommunication here.” Notice how the last sentence is seeking to understand—not accuse. This allows your co-worker to clear up any confusion and create a clear path forward for resolving the issue.

Related: How Do I Write a Resignation Letter That Leaves Me on Good Terms With My Boss?

Your co-worker may realize their error and apologize, and change their behaviour moving forward. If they become defensive, however, it is always important to remember that sometimes leading with empathy means stepping away and setting boundaries. It is completely appropriate to say “I understand this conversation may be feeling stressful, do we want to come back to this tomorrow?” This can help to politely remind your co-worker that this is not meant to be hostile conversation. If their tone does not shift after this, loop in your manager.

In cases where someone taking credit for your work is an ongoing issue, you’ll want to escalate it to your manager. Mistakes happen, but if your co-worker is constantly saying they did your work, have an honest conversation with your boss about it. In this conversation, come prepared with examples, like emails or Slack messages, that support your experience. Ask your manager how they advise moving forward so you can all be on the same page.

Related: How Should I Answer the ‘Why Should We Hire You’ Question in Job Interviews?

In most cases, your manager will speak to your co-worker and provide feedback to them. A good boss will want to support you and create a safe space for you to do great work and be recognized for it. But, in the event your manager is not able or willing to support you, this is when you lean on HR or other leaders at the company. Being treated with respect and being recognized for your work should never be solely your responsibility.

Emily Durham
Emily Durham
Emily Durham is a Toronto-based coach, public speaker and content creator known for her funny and relatable TikToks about all things work. Follow her on TikTok and Instagram at @emily.the.recruiter.