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Lynne Curry: Supervisor took credit for his employee's ideas

Lynne Curry

Q. My supervisor stole my ideas and presented them to upper management as his own.

When I told him about my ideas three weeks ago, he said to give him all the paperwork and he'd look at what I'd put together. When I didn't hear from him for two weeks, I asked him what he'd thought and he told me my ideas would never work.

A week later, I heard he was getting a raise based on an awesome new strategy. The strategy, announced to our entire company on the intranet, was based on ideas I'd spent weeks developing from the ground up.

I don't know what to do. Much of what I gave him was research I'd done on my own time and printed using the University of Alaska library copier. I gave my supervisor my only copies. I had written a three-page summary on my work computer. When I tried to pull it up, I learned the entire folder was deleted. Since I'm only going to night school and my supervisor has an MBA, I don't think anyone will believe the ideas were mine -- but they were.

My wife says I should let this go. She says if I can come up with one idea, I can come up with another. She knows my mouth has gotten me into trouble at two previous jobs, so she's afraid. She knows how upset I am and thinks I'll make a big stink and get fired. Don't I have any rights when the ideas were mine?

A. It stinks when supervisors steal credit for their employees' ideas.

Given your past, tread carefully; your supervisor has a vested interest in your silence.

Instead, decide who in upper management you can trust and how you can make your case. Can a computer-savvy individual help you recover your deleted file in a manner that shows its creation date? If so, it reveals your supervisor's fraud. Can the university reference librarian vouch for the quantity of papers you printed on their copier?

According to lawyer Chuck Dunnagan, you need concrete proof of what you gave your supervisor in the three-page summary and what your supervisor ultimately presented to upper management.

Do your personnel policies address who owns products created on work equipment or by exempt employees? Even if they don't and you're an exempt employee, your employer may own your work product. If your company's policies don't address this issue and you created this work on your own time, you may have an intellectual property claim. If you're an hourly employee and your company used your work, you may have a wage and hour claim.

According to Matthew Block, another lawyer, Alaska recognizes the disclosure of an idea as valid consideration for an express or implied contract. Alaska's Supreme Court addressed this principle when John Reeves sued Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. Reeves alleged that Alyeska stole his idea for a visitor center at a popular turnout overlooking the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. Reeves claimed he described his idea to an Alyeska manager with the assurance that his idea was "between us" and expecting that if it happened, he'd be the project manager.

Alyeska built the center without Reeves, claiming an Alyeska employee earlier gave them a similar idea. Reeves sued, alleging unjust enrichment, breach of oral contract and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Alaska's Supreme Court took seriously the perceived injustice of one person commercially exploiting another's ideas. The court determined "that the (recipient of the idea) may later determine, with a little thinking, that he could have had the same ideas and could thereby have saved considerable money for himself, is no defense against the claim of the (idea person)."

Reeves, not an Alyeska employee, ultimately won $1,820,000.

Do you have rights? Potentially yes, if you can prove what happened. Further, Dunnagan notes, "Alaskan law protects you from being retaliated against or fired for complaining (truthfully) that a supervisor stole your idea and presented it falsely as his own."

But can you follow in Reeves' footsteps and get an award? Not likely, says Dunnagan: "Companies generally have the right to act on good ideas they get from their employees."

Dr. Lynne Curry is a management/employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to her at lynne@thegrowthcompany.com. You can follow her on Twitter @lynnecurry10 or through www.workplacecoachblog.com.


Lynne Curry
THE WORKPLACE