You've been working hard on a critical project and you need some help in order to overcome one troublesome obstacle. You’ve successfully completed more than 95% of the work on your own, and have a plan to complete almost all of the remaining work, but you just haven’t encountered this one particular problem before and need some help. So you go to a co-worker who you know to be knowledgeable about this particular aspect. You ask for his help and he is quickly able to get this aspect of the problem solved. You thank him for his great assistance and continue the remaining work needed to get the project wrapped up and ready for delivery. When you’re done, you go to your boss to let her know that this critical project is now complete and ready for release, including giving credit for the critical help of your co-worker.
But your boss then tells you that your co-worker has already been in to let her know about the great project he had completed on his own, and that she has already informed the management team up to the top ranks of the company about the great work your co-worker has done, and the rewards that co-worker has coming. You’re speechless and attempt to explain to your boss that you've done all the work except for the one small part your co-worker contributed, but your boss looks at you like you’ve got two heads, questioning why you want to claim credit for the work your co-worker has clearly claimed as his own. Unbelievable!
It would never even occur to you to claim the work of others as your own, as you always go out of your way to give credit to anyone else who has contributed to the efforts to complete a project you’re involved in. The thought that someone would claim your work as their own is almost incomprehensible to you, but there it is. You’re not looking for any special accolades or hosannas or special rewards for your work, but someone else taking credit for what you’ve labored hard to accomplish is beyond the pale. And your boss doesn’t want to hear about anything to change her perception since she’s already presented your work as that of another person, and in glowing terms, and now it would be embarrassing for her to admit to all she communicated with that she got it wrong (see also Embarrassment Rules The World?). So what can you do?
First, confront the coworker claiming credit for your work and ask him why he is claiming credit for work he clearly did not do (see also Self-Destructive Behavior). Ask him to clarify with your boss what he did versus what you did. If this person has any honor, he will own up to his fabrications and make it clear to your boss that you did virtually all of the work and he contributed one small part of that work (see also Show True Professionalism!). This may be embarrassing for him (see also You Reap What You Sow!), but it is the right thing to do. Your boss should then be willing to set the record straight with those in her chain of command. Ask that she do that.
If this person is without honor you have more work to do. Let him know you will not allow this to stand as your honor and reputation has been unfairly impugned! Document the evidence of the work you performed, particularly all the work done before your coworker was even involved, but also work you did after your coworker’s contributions were completed. Use data from your personal files and from public files. Identify specific information that is essential for the project and is known only to you. Specific file names and dates with only your name associated or other information that clearly indicates when you performed the work will help tell the tale. Just report the facts and let these facts demonstrate the truth of your position and the falsehoods of your coworker’s (see also Pound the Facts, Not the Table).
Next, let other coworkers know what has been done by this credit-stealing lowlife, and his unwillingness to let the truth be known, and ask for corroboration from these other coworkers who are aware that you did all but one aspect of this work. This may be from coworkers who were deeply involved in other aspects of the project and well aware of the work you did (e.g. from coworkers who were assigned to test your work throughout the process of the project, and who may have documented evidence of their own), or from coworkers who were simply aware of the work you were doing due to proximity and discussions you had with them. Ask them if they would be willing to stand with you in front of your boss, and if they would be willing to document their information in writing.
Then, go back to your boss with the corroborating evidence, the supporting resources, and other proof to convince her of the misstatements of your credit-stealing coworker. Make it clear that you are pursuing this as a matter of honor and for giving credit where credit is due. If your boss responds positively, then you are done and let her proceed.
If your boss is not responsive, then you need to think carefully about how or whether to proceed further. You can go to your boss’ boss, but what are the costs versus the benefits, or the risks versus the rewards of going around your boss? If you do, you’ll embarrass the person who you will in all likelihood still be reporting to. What will this do to your working relationship? What will this do to future performance reviews and raises? Is it worth it? Think through the consequences carefully. [See also Mis-Managers: How Bad Managers Can Poison the Well!]
A more insidious and unfortunately more common form of stolen credit is the case where a boss (or the boss’ boss) takes credit for the work of one more of his/her subordinates without acknowledging their efforts and contributions. The boss may even get personally rewarded (perhaps with a promotion, bonus, or other prestige) for others’ work, and those above the boss giving such rewards may never even be aware of the subordinates’ work. Such behavior is shameful, but not uncommon (see also The Credit Taker / Thief Manager).
If subordinate(s) become aware of such management stolen credit, then before acting impulsively and raising a ruckus, they need to very carefully think through the consequences. If it will not really change things substantially to the good, it may be best to just suck it up and deal with it. Consider it a real-world lesson learned, and recognize that some of the bosses cannot be trusted (see also Trust Me, I’m Not Like The Others!). Formally raising the issue may be embarrassing to much of the management team; not generally conducive to long-term employment. Informally going to a trusted member of the management team with the information may at least let the truth be known, but this still comes with substantial risk.
How stolen credit is regarded in your company is really a function of the company culture and rules of corporate life (formal or informal) instilled by the management team, and the code of honor (hopefully) that management and employees promote and live by every day. Still, regardless of the circumstances, stolen credit should be unacceptable and should not be tolerated anywhere in the company!