How to Handle a Boss Who Takes Credit for Your Work
Published: Mar 31, 2009
Question: My boss is inappropriately praised for a lot of work she has nothing to do with. The problem is that she seems to feel a need to imply -- and sometimes outright state -- that she is responsible for the work done by me and others who report to her.
She creates the perception that she has a hand in (or is solely responsible for) every contribution our group makes. And it works great for her; she has received two promotions in the three years I've been at this job, while the most progress anyone who reports to her has made is to have the word "senior" added to our existing titles while we stay in the same pay grade.
How does one address this situation without seeming petty? (Or is this actually a petty complaint?)
Answer: Seething because someone stole your stapler is petty. So is hoarding all of the Splenda from the office kitchen. But feeling frustrated because you're not being recognized for a job well-done isn't. The best managers look for employees to build up and champion. What your boss is doing is the opposite of that.
"One of the things that is key for career advancement is finding a mentor or someone to promote you," says Stephen Gravenkemper, a psychologist with Plante & Moran, a management consulting firm. "Labels such as 'leadership potential' are defined early in a career."
That said, before you accuse your boss of using you to boost herself up the corporate ladder, make sure what she's doing is intentional. It's possible that from time to time she could confuse one of your contributions with hers.
"There are cases where people might hear something in a meeting and then two weeks later they might think it was their idea," says Dr. Gravenkemper. "If you give the supervisor the benefit of the doubt, it helps."
If you conclude your boss has taken credit for your work too many times for it to be an accident, you shouldn't rush to confront her about it. First, you need to prepare yourself for how she'll react when you bring it up. Is she someone who will scream, "How much stroking do you need?" or will she respond more civilly?
"You want to confront this in a way that ensures the supervisor is going to be receptive," says Dr. Gravenkemper. "Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Do you know of any situations where she's gotten this feedback, and how did she respond?"
If the answer is positively, you may want to proceed with a conversation. But steel yourself to the possibility that no matter how diplomatically you couch it, if you do confront your boss, you're airing a sensitive issue that puts you in direct conflict with her over who's doing what.
If you think a discussion is in order, think of a couple of specific examples from your recent experience when you felt she should have cited your accomplishments on a project and didn't. Bringing up the championship softball game from three summers ago that she took credit for winning even though she wasn't there won't be helpful.
Keep in mind that your goal when going into her office isn't to sound off about how upset you are. It's to get credit for your work to put yourself in line for a raise, promotion or any other attractive opportunity that bolsters your career. Comparisons to a spotlight-courting Paris Hilton will make her defensive. Instead, ask for advice about how you should solve the problem of not being recognized for your work.
"Say something like, 'I'm interested in getting credit for the work I've done,'" says Kenneth Lloyd, the author of "Jerks at Work: How to Deal with People Problems and Problem People." "'Maybe you can help me. How do I get credit for this?' It's almost like on Seinfeld when George says, 'It's not you, it's me.'"
Even though others in your group agree with you, limit your conversation to what you're feeling. Using the word "we" will make your boss feel ganged up on.
"You're soliciting her response," says James Quick, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Texas at Arlington. "What that does is make it very clear that you're interested in a two-way communication. One-way communication shuts people down."
If your boss doesn't change her behavior after your discussion, you should try to make yourself more visible outside of your work group. Talk about your ideas with others who have influence in the company or volunteer for a project with people you don't normally interact with. Give your boss a heads-up that you're going to be seeking other projects, but be aware she may see it as a betrayal.
"It's not going away," says Dr. Lloyd. "To the extent it can, it will probably get worse. She's been promoted, and no one has said anything about it. If these employees just let it go, it's going to fester and the problem itself is going to get worse. This is not petty. This is really something where the employee should take action." And not just by hiding the boss's stapler.
Ultimately, if the situation doesn't improve, you may have to find a job outside your group or company, working for someone who will give you credit when it's due.