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How should I react in the following situation? It happens to me regularly. Just for context: I used to be a hard-worker, but frequently I did not get enough recognition for my work, so I'm trying to be smarter now.

I'm sitting in a work meeting, a normal discussion on some aspect of the project, not a steering committee or anything similar: 5-7 people, half of them on my grade, the rest senior to us, our boss and their peers.

Example 1: Then "Peter" (from my grade) says something like: "I'm facing this and that problem and I'm not sure how to deal with it". The rest can't help. I can. I say something like: "We've been facing something similar in my team lately and if you wish I can share the code that solved the problem and share the info I got from Team A and B about the root cause". Peter says in front of our boss: "Thanks, but I have some ideas and will be able to do that on my own".

Example 2: Then "Peter" says: "Who should pick up Task A?". I reply something similar to: "Do you want to be responsible for that? If that's the case, that's ok for me. Otherwise, I will take this" or the other way round: "I will take it unless you want to be responsible". Peter's reply in front of our boss: "I will do that".

Then, a few minutes or an hour after the meeting, in both the versions of the situation Peter comes back to me and says: "Sorry, I changed my mind. Could you do that/ help me?".

It's normally an effort of at least several hours. I feel bad if I say no, but I feel manipulated if I say yes. The management will think Peter did that (on his own) and if I mention it was actually me, I will be seen as not a team player.

I'm all for giving favors and being nice to everybody. However, these people are normally "takers" - they expect a lot from you and don't hesitate to ask you something, but you can't rely on them to return the favor. They themselves say: "That's not my job" quite a bit. This explains why I think about my interests in the situation presented here.

What's the best way to go here?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Apr 29 '21 at 7:44
  • Is it always one person "Peter" or do multiple colleagues do this to you (and perhaps to each other)?
    – stannius
    May 3 '21 at 13:02

12 Answers 12

130

Early in my career, people would do the same to me. My work was stolen and others got credit.

Fortunately, this is simple to resolve.

For either scenario (and any others), just send an email.

Hi Peter, as per our conversation, I will be glad to help you with the XYZ project. Please find attached, a copy of the code I used on the ABC project. I hope it helps! -BigMadAndy

CC: Boss

That will solve all your problems. People won't take advantage of you, you will be seen as a team player, and you are making sure the boss knows you are helping. Also, nobody will be able to steal your work when you are including "here is my work, feel free to use it", and CCing the boss in the process.

As to your work habits, ramp it back up to full speed, and learn how to promote yourself. "Brag, how to toot your own horn without blowing it" is a good book to learn how to do that.

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    You mean send it with my boss in cc?
    – BigMadAndy
    Apr 26 '21 at 21:19
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    @BigMadAndy Yes, sorry. I went back and edited that in. But yes, make sure your boss knows what you are doing. That solves both of your problems. People won't be duplicitous if they know the boss is being CC'd and you'll get the credit you deserve, plus you will be known as a "team player" Apr 26 '21 at 21:31
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    +1 simply for "letting the boss know what you're doing". To be honest, I think OP misdiagnosed the problem. It's not whether Peter asks for help in private or public; it's that OP's helping Peter without the boss knowing (which is why its possible for them to not have recognition.) And it enables other problems, such as OP working on something for Peter when they've got a more important project the boss would rather them be focusing on.
    – Kevin
    Apr 27 '21 at 13:50
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    Actually your boss should always be aware of what you are doing. So if you spend x hours helping someone you have to tell him. For many reasons.
    – RedSonja
    Apr 28 '21 at 10:41
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    I disagree with the "just cc the boss" approach. It's unnecessarily passive aggressive. A more civilised alternative is to point out that the purpose of the meeting was to allocate tasks, you have yours, and you need to ask (or at least inform) your boss to switch tasks (similarly, the boss may want to reassign your colleague to another task). IF your colleague agrees (they may not, in which case it's their problem again) then you're both on board and the task switch is formal, with the boss' blessing. If I were the boss and started receiving "cover my ass" emails, I wouldn't be too impressed. Apr 28 '21 at 14:58
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Do you have a Daily meeting where you report on your progress?

For my answer, I'll assume this is the case.
If you put in more than an hour of effort into helping with an issue that is not your current task, I would mention that on the next day:

[your own report]... and I helped Peter with XY, that also took a bit of time.

Then everybody knows, this is in a friendly tone that should offend nobody, but if Peter is annoyed by you reporting your input, well, you might not have to worry about him asking anymore. ;)

EDIT: According to OP's comment, the boss is not attending dailies. The peer pressure from the daily might already have some effect on Peter, if he feels embarrassed by needing help. If you feel like it is necessary to make this behavior visible to your boss, I'd first try to use whatever time tracking you have to correctly track the time you spent with other tasks. If that is not an option, you may be more aggressive and CC you boss as Old_Lamplighter suggests.

However, "never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity". You should be certain that Peter has an agenda in his behavior, don't escalate if he is simply a fool.

He is not making a good case for himself, anyway. A decent boss should also recognize that someone, who is not accepting needed help when offered, is not a good candidate for promotion.

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  • I do have dailies, but our bosses don't attend.
    – BigMadAndy
    Apr 27 '21 at 17:29
  • So it's just you and your peers?
    – bob
    Apr 27 '21 at 18:11
  • @bob, exactly..
    – BigMadAndy
    Apr 28 '21 at 10:18
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    The corollary to "never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity" is that "much malice can be hidden by feigning stupidity" Apr 28 '21 at 12:19
  • @Old_Lamplighter hear hear! Apr 28 '21 at 19:53
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What you're describing are actually just symptoms.

The core issue is simple. You're opening up potential issues where you don't have to. You're volunteering a solution, but not immediately taking ownership of the problem as well so that you'll get credit for the solution.

This means you're opening yourself up to be used. I have often had solutions others don't know about, but unless I see an advantage to speaking up, I don't; it's not my problem. I earnt my experience the hard way. Why would I devalue it by giving it away willy-nilly?

A few minutes help is friendly professional courtesy, but a few hours with nothing reciprocal is something else.

They themselves say: "That's not my job" quite a bit.

If someone is saying this to you when asked for assistance, and yet you still spend hours on them, then the problem is yours.

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    I had a problem like that as well in the past, I proposed a better solution to a problem than my colleague did and he always talked me down. After his approach failed, he used my approach without any appreciation to me. Now, I let that colleague do his work and let him see his faults himself. I've been part of the problem as I gave him cheap solutions over and over again. Apr 29 '21 at 12:40
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Don't bother with hints, you think Pete is screwing up workflow on purpose. Tell your boss. It's her job to know that stuff and handle it. "Pete keeps taking tasks in meetings, then asking me to finish them. I'm OK with that as long as you know I spend 1/3rd of my time on his work". She can silently schedule you "1/3rd time helping Pete", or jump in during meetings and say "you know, let's have MadAndy do that", or merely note "Pete and Andy don't get along", or you may be the 3rd person who's complained about Pete and she realizes he's barely done any work.

In my not-quite-the-same-but similar situation, my boss told me Pete was his favorite, I needed to defer to Pete in all ways, and any friction between Pete and I was automatically my fault. It was a good meeting -- I knew exactly where I stood in less time than it takes to draft one subtle passive-aggressive email.

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    Having favoritism explicitly stated is pretty unprofessional, but sure cuts through a lot of BS as you figure it out for yourself. I envy you that. Apr 29 '21 at 13:48
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My first tactic here would be to ask the individual what changed since they accepted the assignment, and what ideas they had to start with. It is too easy to become the company "garbage disposal" by letting people walk all over you without any form of accountability. Accountability doesn't have to be in the form of "telling the manager", it can be in the form of letting them hang themselves. Ask them what they've done on it so far and what they have left in their plan. Hold them accountable for making sure that the work is in a prepared and transferrable state.

We always want to be in a position to help our co-workers. Rather than doing everything for them however, you can offer some measure of assistance while still leaving them on the hook for it. I would use some language to the effect of:

I can't take it over for you. What exactly did you need assistance with?

Again, this puts the responsibility for completion on the other individual and indicates that you remain willing to help without putting yourself on the hook for responsibility for it.

As with anything, keep your responses in writing as much as possible or send a corresponding mail to indicate a discussion occurred and what the outcome was. Documentation always saves the day.

Finally, you should not feel bad for decisions they've made. You have taken on your tasks, and you're expected to meet those commitments. You are expected to help your teammates with tasks, and you are not responsible for their commitments. Own your commitments, call out (in stand up or though email correspondence) when you assist someone with theirs. If you need to say "no" to someone, say "no". You should not feel bad for staying committed to your responsibilities under any circumstance.

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Be direct. Say "If you want me to work on this project, tell the boss to re-assign it to me."

Even if he doesn't agree to this, you've lost nothing by telling him what you want. Furthermore, he'll know that he should expect the same answer from you the next time he volunteers to do a task that he doesn't really want to do.

I feel bad if I say no, but feel manipulated if I say yes.

Manipulation is a two-way street. The only real reason you want to say "yes" is that you're trying to control what this guy thinks of you.

But the reality is that by trying to control what this guy thinks of you, he's the one who's actually controlling you.

The sad thing is that this is totally self-inflicted. And you could choose to stop playing this game at any point, but you choose not to.

PS: I disagree with the highest-voted answer we have so far. While that approach is good if your work has already been stolen, being a tattletale and making your co-worker lose face at this stage is unnecessary. It's better if you give the choice to your co-worker, on whether he wants to ask your boss or not. Again, the worst that can happen is that he refuses your offer and does this work on his own, but even if that happens, you've lost nothing yourself.

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Answer him in public. Send an email to him and cc everyone involved in the project. "Hey Peter, this is the code you asked for earlier ..."

If he says thanks, you can keep doing the same thing and getting your recognition. If he says he didn't ask for it, you'll have a reason to stop helping him.

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    I'd be even more specific: "This is the code you asked for when we talked after the meeting today." just so there is no way to misinterpret "Hey Peter, this is the code you asked for earlier ..." as unsolicited help for what was said in the meeting (when Peter said he has issues but wants to solve them himself). Also, I'd add the whole team in CC, with a note: "I've also added everyone in CC, as I think this could be helpful for the whole team"
    – brett
    Apr 27 '21 at 12:55
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    @brett, I 75% like your idea. I think it would be stronger if, during the initial meeting when the issue came up, after "Peter" rebuffs the OP's offer to help, if the OP says "Okay, if you change your mind, email me and I'll CC the team in case it might be useful for anyone else, too." Then it's out in the open, and later, if/when that email is sent, it avoids looking a little passive aggressive. If I were a fly on the wall, and a member of this team, and I received an email out of nowhere doing this, I'd think it was a weakly played power move. It needs to be more in the open. Just my 2¢.
    – elrobis
    Apr 27 '21 at 13:23
  • Yeah, agree on the passive-agressive stance. If you have the presence of mind to prepare the move during the meeting, that is of course the elegant way to go about it. If however you are taken by surprise by Peter's privately asking for help, while refusing it in public, then passive aggressive is still a proper response, imo. I think things need to be spelled out exactly as they are, so they don't leave room for misinterpretation. Even calling Peter out: "Peter, are you ashamed to accept my help in public? There's nothing wrong in accepting help, plus I also get the credit for my work."
    – brett
    Apr 27 '21 at 13:46
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    Not sure I'd CC everyone on the team unless that's something people normally do. Otherwise it will look weird, or worse. I do agree with the spirit of this answer--making it public in some way--just not sure CC'ing the whole team is the right answer; it will be team culture dependent.
    – bob
    Apr 27 '21 at 14:05
  • @bob yes, I've gotten those cc chains. The first is "why are you wasting my time trying to drag me into your problems?" The rest are "we all knew Pete was a pain, now we also know you're a baby". Apr 28 '21 at 17:54
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Then, a few minutes or an hour after the meeting, in both the versions of the situation Peter comes back to me and says: "Sorry, changed my mind. Could you do that/ help me?".

Just respond (in a perfectly neutral tone with no hint of sarcasm or snark and no emphasis on any words): "Sure. Just talk to [your boss] and let me know what work can be delayed so that I can help you with the work that you agreed to do. It's unfortunate that you didn't realize this sooner when we were planning."

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    The idea seems fine, but maybe a bit indirect? Regardless of tone that speech seems snarky. The point is to emphasize that the meeting is where we do this sort of scheduling, right? Apr 28 '21 at 2:19
  • @OwenReynolds Yes. It is very important that it be delivered in a perfectly neutral tone with no emphasis on any words. The snark will be just as powerful, but it will be much more difficult for them to take offense or perceive it as intentionally snarky. Apr 28 '21 at 17:15
  • Again, telling them division of labour is purposely done during meetings seems a useful addition here, but saying it like a soap-opera villain seems pointlessly rude. Apr 28 '21 at 17:43
  • @OwenReynolds What makes something seem villainous is emphasis and tone. It is almost impossible to be interpreted as snarky or evil if delivered in an even tone with no emphasis. If done properly, the listener will perceive themselves as adding the snark, not the speaker as intending it. Apr 28 '21 at 18:21
  • There's no even-ness of tone that obscures "It's unfortunate that you didn't realize this sooner when we were planning" from being an almost direct rebuke. Apr 29 '21 at 13:53
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Based on the context available in the question, I think the straightforward solution by Old_Lamplighter is preferable, but I offer another view for completeness:

The behavior by "Peter" could also be interpreted as an invitation to exchange favors in private.

Now that he refused to give you the recognition in public, rather than give him the assistance without conditions as you would have before, you could ask for something of similar value in exchange, in the immediate future. I.e. including both the work itself and the lack of recognition. If that opportunity exists.

Besides that, obviously you must consider whether this would be violating norms in your organization. If it is a gray area (which is not that unusual) you must also approach the whole thing carefully, word anything you say in a very defensible way, and it probably wouldn't be worth the hassle, so consider it a rare special case.

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    Suspicious that "Pete" W gave this answer, to be honest. Apr 27 '21 at 16:47
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I feel like many of the current answers solve the immediate problem, but don't actually get to the heart of the issue. The point is that when you are faced with a task that needs doing, the real question that needs to be asked is, "who is best suited to doing the job?" If that's you, you should do it. If it's Peter, he should do it. It's not about getting credit for doing the job, it's about turning out the best possible product. If your primary motivation is the former, then you will come across as selfish. It's not necessarily bad to be selfish (after all by requesting a salary we are all being selfish), but focusing on the latter will get your boss's attention.

If you and Peter are both equally suited to doing the job, then the question morphs to "who currently has more free time?" Again, if it's you, you should do it, and if it's Peter, he should do it.

From this perspective the entire interaction you describe becomes:

  • You are more suited to doing it and you have more free time. You do it. You are not being taken advantage of, in fact you are doing what your contract requires you to do (i.e. using your skills for the good of the company).
  • You are more suited to doing it but Peter has more free time. Talk to the boss and explain why you should do it, but also point out that you don't have time. There's a good chance she transfers some of your other responsibilities to Peter.
  • Peter is more suited to doing it but you have more free time. The inverse of the above situation, again you talk to the boss. There's a good chance she transfers some of Peter's other responsibilities to you.
  • Peter is more suited to doing it and Peter has more free time. You decline to do it. If Peter insists, refer to the boss, explaining why it is better for the department/company. If boss overrules your objection (which is possible, because the boss is an objective 3rd party who might have a different appraisal of you & Peter's skills/time), then follow the boss's decision.

It's rather concerning to me when you write "I'm all for giving favors and being nice to everybody", because doing these tasks is not giving favors or being nice. It's your job, it's what you are contracted for. Instead of entering these interactions thinking of what you can get out of it, you should be thinking about what is best for the department/company.

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  • Your explanation would be more valuable if Peter's and my skill levels were similar. But I dare say I have more experience and expertise. So in the example above, I'm more suited but I don't have time. However, boss couldn't move anything from my tasks to Peter since Peter wouldn't be able to deal with them. So I would get more tasks. "If your primary motivation is the former, then you will come across as selfish" - and if my primary motivation is the latter, I will end up working 15 hours/ day with no extra credit - currently it's "just" 12. I'm paid for 8.
    – BigMadAndy
    Apr 29 '21 at 6:15
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    @BigMadAndy in that case if the boss does not move the task, then you do it with the understanding that your other tasks will be late/lower quality. I don't understand how the boss is letting you work 15 hours/day. All the managers I've worked under have understood that there's only so much work a person can do in a day, and one cannot just arbitrarily give that person more work and still expect them to be able to complete it in time. Even at 12 hours/day when I'm contracted for 8, I'd be looking to leave.
    – Allure
    Apr 29 '21 at 7:29
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    @BigMadAndy IMO that context is crucial, that you're working so many hours, in the question you put "Just for context: I used to be a hard-worker" -- if you're working those kind of hours (for free) you are still a very hard worker. A bit off topic but I'd recommend finding a way to scale back in any way possible. I've been there myself (didn't work less than 70 hours a week for 2 years and did 95 hours a week for 3 months), get comfortable with saying "sorry, I can't do it" and find an industry/job that respects your time, I had to completely change industries and techs but it was worth it.
    – jrh
    Apr 29 '21 at 12:30
  • @BigMadAndy that context is crucial because it sounds to me that you are personally tasked with getting things done "no matter what" even if it takes more than 8 hours, IMO you are getting ripped off bad unless you have significant stock options in the company (and you believe it's a good investment) and/or will make enough to retire rich like the owners if it takes off. If you are getting loaded up with work like an owner but paid like an employee, and you are expected to do that, you're literally getting paid less per hour, and I would consider looking around for better jobs.
    – jrh
    Apr 29 '21 at 12:37
  • This seems to ignore the main issue, where Peter seems to be purposely over-promising in front of the bosses then wasting the OP's time later. Apr 29 '21 at 16:31
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I would guess that Peter is trying to hide from the boss that he is not as capable as the boss expects him to be. This is deliberate.

I would suggest saying "Sorry, but I do not have time anymore as I have been assigned something else. Perhaps we can discuss this at the next meeting?"

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As much as I personally dislike it, this might be a perfect use case for pair programming.

(You don't explicitly say it, but you mention "code" so I assume this is some sort of software development you are involved in.)

If you have a solution and Peter has a solution the best plan would be to pair and find the best solution. You should be the one that suggests this. When these kinds of issues arise in planning take the initiative and suggest that the two of you pair.

Your assessment and others here are probably right, Peter might be in over his head. But that doesn't mean you should throw him to the wolves or let him sink on his own. It might feel good in the short term but it is not at all professional.

What is professional is recognizing that you have skills and knowledge that are different from your teammates and you have can learn from them and they can learn from you.

This is where pair programming does help. You might even take the time to prime your manager by meeting one on one ahead of time and explaining the idea of pair programming and why it might be helpful.

You have an opportunity to set yourself up in the eyes of your management as not only a "team player" but a leader. A developer that not only does great work but also wants to share knowledge and motivates everyone to do great work and grow.

Also, you shouldn't be so passive in planning. Decisions are made by those that make decisions. Right now it sounds like, Peter is the one making decisions.

And now let me add this. I personally very much dislike pair programming. It does not work well with how I think and code as an individual and I think it is often a waste of time. That being said, there are times when it is an invaluable tool. Naturally for sharing knowledge and strategy it works well. One of the most ironic ways it can be valuable is working with someone you dislike and getting to know them as you code together. Yes, depending on your personality type it can be exhausting but it can be well worth it in the long run. And again, this is coming from someone who would rather have you stick a fork in their eye than pair program.

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