Need to start saving with a new ATS? Learn how to calculate the return on investment of your ATS Calculate ROI now

Idea theft and how it impacts employee morale

Have you ever been in a meeting where someone presented your idea as their own? It’s disheartening. It doesn’t feel appropriate to speak up and say, “Hey, that was my idea,” yet if you keep quiet, others keep stealing your ideas.

Suzanne Lucas
Suzanne Lucas

Suzanne, the Evil HR Lady, shares expertise, guidance, and insights based on 10+ years of experience in corporate human resources....

idea theft

Idea theft isn’t just a minor annoyance; it can affect and damage employee morale and your brand. 

What is idea theft in the workplace?

A team can come up with ideas–and, in fact, a team working together can often come up with better ideas than a single person working alone. 

The classic example is the manager who presents the team’s work as their own. Is that idea theft? People know that the manager didn’t do all the work, right?

Perhaps they do know that when a manager says “I,” they mean “my team,” but if that’s what they mean, then they should say that. A simple change of “the team created this” can bring a world of difference to team morale.

Managers must remember that their job is to manage. You actually look like a better manager when you can explain how your employees did the work under your leadership. That’s the goal. 

Idea theft also comes from people just taking ideas without credit. Sometimes, you’ll see it in meetings. 

Idea theft is common

According to an OfficeTeam survey, 44 percent of employees had their ideas stolen. But that means some of you are also stealing ideas. You may not even realize that you are stealing ideas. Or you may think that yes, Jane had this idea, but I’ve added to it and it’s now mine.

Add to this the proliferation of large language models like ChatGPT where you put in a question and it pulls other people’s ideas for you to use. You may not have directly stolen it from another human, but the AI did it for you.

But why steal? There are plenty of reasons people do, and some of them are solvable. Some are not.

Some people steal ideas because they are self-centered jerks who will stomp anyone who gets in their way. But not all people who steal ideas are that way. Consider the person who brings something up, gets credit for it, and fails to say “well, it wasn’t my idea.” There is a real fear that sharing other’s ideas will make the person seem less valuable.

You also have managers who were trained by managers who stole ideas and think this is just the way to go about it.

And you have people who hear something or read something, but don’t register it and genuinely think they thought it up themselves. Frankly, we all are in that category as we have a ton of input in what we do each day. (Did I read some of these ideas elsewhere? Probably. They aren’t terribly unique or exciting!)

Ignoring or participating in workplace idea theft will be demoralizing. Why would an employee work hard to create something new and have someone else claim credit? Why speak up in a meeting if you know that the person next to you will claim credit for your ideas? 

Ultimately, it has a chilling effect on your employees and their creativity. Remember, managers who support employees get engaged employees. Engaged employees are more productive. More productive employees is a benefit to the manager. Stealing their ideas may make you look cool for a minute but is ultimately destructive.

How to handle workplace idea theft

The most important thing is for managers to set an example. If a manager consistently gives credit where credit is due, others will pick up on it. Managers must provide credit – even when the employee is not in the room. It’s a powerful thing for a manager to say, “Hey, my employee Jane had this great idea and here’s how we’re implementing it…” It allows senior leaders to learn about employees and encourages a culture of collaboration.

If someone steals your ideas you have two options: Stay quiet or speak up.

Most people would probably like to think that they would stand up for themselves and say something witty and pointed that would stop the idea thief in their tracks, but that is not what happens. The first time it happens you may be too shocked to say anything, but if it happens once, it’s likely to happen again and you can prepare. Practice some of these phrases, 

“Yes, that’s a great idea. I presented it last week and…”

“If you’ll remember, I suggested that to you twenty minutes ago…”

“Yes, the project did turn out great. I did X, Juan did Y, Stephanie did Z, and you managed the process.”

Practicing phrases can help you speak up even when it’s hard.

If you’re not the type to speak up in public, you can meet with the thief after and say, “Hey, I worked very hard on that, and you neglected to give me credit. Can you please note that I initiated that project in the follow up e-mail?”

Being outspoken will likely stop the problem, but an inveterate thief will continue, at which point you can either decide to live with it or decide to get out. You’re not a bad person if you quit a job because of this level of disrespect. 

Ultimately, idea theft will affect your business and your brand. The people who come up with the ideas won’t stay if they don’t get credit! So, eventually, you’re left with just the people whose only skill is stealing other’s ideas. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Frequently asked questions

Need to know your candidate better?

Test your candidates using Workable Assessments to know their top soft skills and see how they can fit into your teams

Start assessing

Let's grow together

Explore our full platform with a 15-day free trial.
Post jobs, get candidates and onboard employees all in one place.

Start a free trial