Is he trying to steal my job?
May 9, 2015 3:19 PM   Subscribe

I feel like a co-worker is trying to steal my job. We are also friends outside of work so this is difficult to navigate. What to do?

Over a year ago I started a job that is in narrow specialty area within a team. I was the only person knowledgable in this area. One of my co-workers took a lot of interest in my work/specialty area and through many interactions and observing how I work, picked up a lot. Now he can do some simple tasks in this area and because he is quite intelligent, he is quickly picking up on more.

When people needed work done and I couldn't do everything at once but for example could get to it in 1-2 weeks, he would jump in and offer to do it instead. This lead to him basically taking a lot of interesting projects away from me. To make things worse, he would often get stuck and ask me for help. It is hard to say no since my job IS to help anyone within the team with this specialty area. But then after my help, he would "do my job" deliver the results and would end up listed as an author on publications ahead of me. With the amount of help he needs, it would have taken me the same time to do it myself and get listed as an author in a good spot. This happened with our last publication.

I am annoyed as now it seems that I have to drop everything when a new project arrives and work nights/weekends so that the project wouldn't be given to him. He has no formal education in this area so people still think that I am more credible.

I don't think this is deliberate and a concious plan on his side but it's just sort of happened and I don't like where this is going. Him and me have coffees and lunches together every day and we are on friendly terms. He probably doesn't know that I feel this way.

I am not sure how to deal with this. Should I confront him directly as in say..."I don't think you should have been listed as an author ahead of me in the last publication". I am kind of ready to let go of the friendship because I feel used. Or is it best to just fade on him, ignore his emails when he asks for help? Should I contact the senior author in the last publication and state how much work I did in helping him and that I feel it would be fair if I was moved up in the author list?

I also feel a bit icky about "back stabbing" him due to our friendship. I hate work place conflict in general. Any ideas on how to resolve this with minimum damage to all involved?
posted by sabina_r to Human Relations (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have no idea how viable this would be in your workplace, but here's my suggestion: When one of these situations come up, say something like "I'm too swamped to do 100 percent of this, but if Co-Worker can get me to about 50 percent, I'll take care of the rest. Don't worry, Co-Worker, I'll make sure you get credit. Update me every Thursday, and I'll let Boss know when I'm working on the final stretch."
posted by Etrigan at 3:30 PM on May 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

"Steal my job" only makes sense if there's only enough work to go around for one. It sounds to me like that's not the case.

I've found that I get WAY more respect when I try to do the opposite of making myself indispensable - I try to work myself out of a job at every chance. I train other people, I write "idiot's guide" procedures for the straightforward cases, I delegate tasks that are just out of my people's comfort zones, anything I can think of. You'd think eventually my bosses would find that they don't need me.

That is not the case. There will still be non-straightforward or unusual projects that need "the expert." Meanwhile I'm learning new things too (which I now have the time to do, since I don't have to have my fingers in every little pie.) I guarantee you, if my bosses did have to decide to keep only one person who knew how to X, it would be me.

In fact, for every X, the money's not in X. It's in getting good at training people to do X and getting reflected credit for every X that anyone does.
posted by ctmf at 3:33 PM on May 9, 2015 [42 favorites]

I mean, you could be upset that he got listed ahead of you, I guess. Or you could look at it with a sports analogy. You were still working on your thing at the time, or else you would have just done the thing he was doing. So what's better, one goal, or one goal and one assist in almost the same time?

Even better if there were a dozen of him, all giving you some credit.
posted by ctmf at 3:46 PM on May 9, 2015

Could you get out ahead of it and ask to be Director of Specialty Area and suggest that he could be your assistant, i.e. Specialty Area assistant? At least then, you get ownership and credit for everything in your niche being produced, and then everyone knows and expects that you are guiding him and helping him, even when he is the lead author. It would also mean all these projects go through you, so you're always the one submitted them and it would be up to you to delegate to him. This may not be possible, depending what the niche area is and what your job is like.

Even without the formal titles or chain of command, you may just want to try to set some sort of process so all these things go through you, so then you can delegate them to him, and then you can review them when he is finished and submit. If he taking these projects on his own, seeking your help on the side, and then submitting a finished product on his own, then I agree it sucks because you're getting zero credit and no one knows what your role was. The problem is, once everything goes through you, it all becomes your responsibility and you can't just conveniently ignore whatever he is doing when you have enough shit to worry about.

I had a guy who kept asking me for help doing what was supposed to be his job. I didn't mind terribly, but I wasn't going to make him look good when he was awful at his job -- that was the part that bugged me. So I brought it up to my bosses, sort of like, "Hey, Ryan is asking me for a lot of help doing X and I've been having to re-write parts of his proposals. I am happy to do it, but I don't want it to pull me from Y (my regular duties) if you would rather I do that." I made my bosses aware of what I was doing, and made sure they knew where his skills actually were. I suggested a long-term solution may be getting him some formal training because I can't do both my job and his job forever -- that made the situation pretty clear without it sounding like I was just asking for credit.
posted by AppleTurnover at 3:56 PM on May 9, 2015 [22 favorites]

Oh, and one thing to mention is, in my conversation with my bosses about "Ryan," I made sure it was a process question -- how would you like me to handle this and would it be better for me to formally be included in the process earlier, instead of him sending me stuff separately off-chain and rehashing the initial discussions about the proposal I wasn't in? I think you can make a process argument that for the projects you and your friend are doing, there should be one point-of-contact or responsible party (you) to keep everything organized and avoid duplication/miscommunication.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:14 PM on May 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

How about giving his requests for assistance the same priority that you would have given the original project? "Sorry, can't help now but I will definitely follow up with you when time permits. " then, if the project is beyond his basic skill level, thank him for starting it for you and relieve him of the burden.
posted by janey47 at 4:16 PM on May 9, 2015 [16 favorites]

If the original project wasn't urgent enough for you to pick up, why is it urgent enough for you to leap in & "help" him when he asks? You don't have to be a dick, but a response of sure I'll help you out, on Wednesday when I put aside time to work on this project. Also talk to management about having all projects routed through you, you could frame it as concern to the higher ups about an inexperienced person getting in over his head when you don't have time to help him. You know just until he builds up his skill set. Assuming of course they are fine with him taking time away from what ever he was hired for to try & do your job in the first place. You can phrase this as concern not as being a jerk, you are worried about things slipping through the cracks because he doesn't fully understand xyz, or whatever.
posted by wwax at 4:26 PM on May 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Just to add that I don't think there is enough work for 2 full time people. Maybe 1.5. He has also been with this team for many years, certainly much longer than me.

As an update, I emailed the senior author of the last publication and told him why I should be moved up in the authors list. He agreed to do it but sort of made me feel petty.
posted by sabina_r at 4:36 PM on May 9, 2015

I might be projecting a bit too much as to what type of work environment you are in because of the lack of these fine details, but from your description I am guessing that you are a postdoc OR a similar type research position, and that the PI has an established protocol in place for the order that names get listed on manuscripts (ie, person who does the hard labor/lab work and writes the first draft is the first author).

I'm going to write the answer with this interpretation, but to be honest, even if you are not in that type of environment, I think this answer would apply because it sounds like a small work environment/team, etc.

If this is a protocol set up in place, and he did do the work, let his name stand as first author. There are people who absolutely do behind the scenes work to remove colleagues name and go for first author, but do you want to be known as that type of person?

I would not ignore him/fade away, etc., because if you are in a small work environment, this will make your current work life hell. I would think it would not reflect well professionally either if you have to start ignoring a person hired to make the work easier.

I would absolutely do what CTMF is suggesting, but spend some time thinking about this first.

Think about things such as the following:

Do you want to work evenings/weekends, etc.? To always be first author, this might be what is required. This is the life of many postdocs and grad students. But you can decide if you want this or not. Having your name on a paper is still respectable, but is working that schedule and letting someone take it over worth it. Alternatively, I would also ask if you can practice the management of other people's expectations. Do they need all the work submitted NOW or can they wait a month or two from now (I would start there rather than hand it all off).

What do you want out of your work environment and how much freedom do you have? If you have an eager, enthusiastic person, ready to learn, as a team you could plow out many papers and projects. Would it help you for this person to be an expert in statistical analyses or (I don't know what you do, but think about it....their names still go on papers, but something that keeps him involved but lets you write the first draft, or whatever criteria needs to be met). If you also get to decide what direction you want to do, I think it would be phenomenal because you could get to know and work in other (again, assumption here, other labs, other research areas/other researchers), and expand the area of expertise of you and the team.

What are his interests and goals professionally? It sounds like he is a tier or two lower. Just saying this as someone who was in that spot at one point in life. Very few people ask "What are your goals and what do you want to learn" when you are at that level - and my guess is that if you have that discussion, and enable/help him to get those things, you could also have a powerhouse team/group, with enthusiasm and knowledge.

Do you know all the rules for how the names are listed on manuscripts and can that be used to your advantage. Again, if you are a postdoc and you get your own grants, will you be listed as last author? Because that would be more prestigious. IF you can do this, you can plug your coworker into doing tons of work and get many papers with the even more prestigious name placement. But I don't know where you work/or the rules. But I would think about doing grants if you are in that type of work environment.
posted by Wolfster at 4:40 PM on May 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

If he is using your work to look like a go-getter (which is what it sounds like he's doing by volunteering and then expecting your help to actually execute) then I agree you should give his help requests the same urgency you would the original request.

He is absolutely making himself look good at your expense, whether or not it's deliberate.
posted by winna at 4:53 PM on May 9, 2015 [10 favorites]

So I am in a situation somewhat similar to your coworker in one part of my job, and somewhat similar to you in another part. In both cases the thing that seems to keep everyone happy is liberal application of the cc button. If he writes and asks you a question about Prof. A's data analysis, copy Prof. A on the answer. If he is interested in learning and is not intending to backstab (like me), he will not be offended that Prof. A gets a clarification of roles and a faster, more accurate answer. If he IS trying to backstab, this makes your respective skillsets super clear to the person putting names on papers. I've started to err on the side of cc-ing as a result, even though I feel bad when I end up bombing someone's email box.
posted by tchemgrrl at 5:00 PM on May 9, 2015 [9 favorites]

To offer a contrary data point, maybe you assumed you would be the only authority on the subject and so allowed yourself to become complacent?

This is very common in the IT field, every senior guy thinks he/she is pretty good at something, some new hot shot upstart does things faster and almost equally as good, and all of a sudden the senior guy now hates the junior guy.

Here's an approach. Think of this as an opportunity to improve your skills. Move beyond and above what you currently think you are the only expert on. Learn new stuff. Start moving more stuff to the other guy, and free yourself some time. Learn new skills. Are you guys peers? Or is one of you senior to the other? Try to make yourself senior?
posted by harisund at 7:18 PM on May 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Authorship order has nothing to do with emotions. When you feel any emotions about what order your name appears on a publication, banish them and instead approach it logically.

It's not petty to ask to be moved up if you did more work. I recently asked to be moved down because I did less work than my co-authors and wasn't comfortable with having my name appear second when I didn't do enough to qualify as second author.

Authorship is not emotional. Don't let emotions get in your way here.
posted by sockermom at 8:00 PM on May 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

Also, this varies from field to field but if he's doing the bulk of the work he's first author. You are not writing, it doesn't sound like - it sounds like he is. In my field that warrants first author. Helping and providing feedback are not what first authors do. You can't expect to be first author on everything produced in your area, even in your own lab, unless you write all of the papers all of the time.

Many times people in your situation also do a rotating system where sometimes you're first and sometimes he's first based on where you're publishing (e.g. "my area is foo so articles on foo published in high impact journals are authored by me, while your area is bar so those articles go to you" or "high impact me, high impact you, low impact me, low impact you, etc").

My mentor taught me to always figure out author order first, then do the research. Try that. I've never been sorry about this approach. It also opens up the door to talk about it later if necessary ("hey remember when I said I would be second author? I'm doing a lot more than I thought I would and I think I should move up in the order.")
posted by sockermom at 8:09 PM on May 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: First author spot is not in contention. He was moved up to second author (in my place) and I was moved down. I spent many hours on this while he spent < 1 hour with heavy help from me. He is not deserving of the spot by any stretch.
posted by sabina_r at 10:30 PM on May 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

I think this particular conflict is mainly about your control over your own time and energy, not about you 'stabbing him in the back' or even criticising him. It doesn't matter if he is an overeager puppy who is just keen to learn or a Machiavellian traitor out to replace you at your workplace. Either way, you're in a position where you are doing work that is not your immediate priority, for which you don't get credit, and which you resent. So I agree the best thing would be to integrate the help you give him into your existing plans, i.e. to say that you cannot help him today because you are doing x,y,z but you have z slot on your calendar when you have time to help. I don't think it's helpful to you to think of that as something you should feel guilty about (backstabbing etc), or something that you are doing to punish him for his bad behaviour. It's just time management, nothing personal.

More broadly, I also wonder if you are right to think, as you seem to, that your sole value to your employer lies in being the only person who knows anything about your field so that a new person with almost-equivalent knowledge could cost you your job. Is that true? If you are a postdoc / researcher, it seems more likely that you have a bunch of transferable skills and the potential to (1) gain expertise in more than one sub-field of your subject; (2) have an ever-developing expertise in the sub-field you already know, including via your contacts / networking / awareness of funding opportunities and process; and (3) eventually develop the ability to manage / direct / set priorities for more junior researchers. This may depend on the field, but it seems weird to me that your job as a specialist in your field could genuinely be at risk because of one guy you are teaching about it and I wonder if this is objectively true about your particular employer or if it's more a question of your own insecurity / anxiety about your value as a researcher.
posted by Aravis76 at 2:01 AM on May 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

My last job in research taught me an important lesson that I did not particularly like learning: you should be having the authorship conversation at the beginning, not at the end. And if, at the end, you find you did more work than expected, it is ok to ask for the appropriate level of credit for your work.

As uncomfortable as this may be, when he says "I am in over my head, can you help me with this" it is ok for you to say "sure, I'll help but if this takes a significant amount of my time, I will be expecting/requesting to receive appropriate credit for my work." Perhaps adding also, "and when I have time, next Wednesday."

I found this incredibly difficult at first but I am actually quite grateful to have learned how to advocate for myself.
posted by bobobox at 4:20 AM on May 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Chiming in in response to this:

I emailed the senior author of the last publication and told him why I should be moved up in the authors list. He agreed to do it but sort of made me feel petty.

Don't fall for it. This is one of those dynamics that can really damage women in the workplace. Any man would have done exactly what you did, without any embarrassment at all, if they felt that their work was not being properly credited. The difference is, it is rare for someone to try to "dis" a guy in the same way, so they don't have to have those conversations very often. You did exactly the right thing by standing up for yourself and your work. Of course, correcting it might have meant that the lead author had to go to the effort of having a difficult conversation, but that's life (and work). As a wise person told me years ago, there's a reason they call our salaries "compensation."

In general, I agree with the suggestion that you should make sure the senior people you are working know how much support and "mentorship" you are providing to this guy. If you play your cards right, you can actually advance your position as the lead on these issues, with him playing a secondary role under your guidance.
posted by rpfields at 5:12 AM on May 10, 2015 [15 favorites]

Any man would have done exactly what you did, without any embarrassment at all, if they felt that their work was not being properly credited.

I wonder if that depends on workplace culture or something -- I work in a more-than-half-male academic setting and *everybody* tiptoes around authorship order. The thought of someone demanding a higher place without showing any embarassment makes my skin crawl (even though, as in OP's case, sometimes it's a converation that has to be had, very tactfully). These things seem to be dealt with quietly by the PI, then sometimes a person asks to be moved down the list.
posted by xris at 8:24 AM on May 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

As a woman, I'm not sure what gender has to do with it. Asking to be moved up in the authorship order every time the other guy does a project hardly seems like an actual solution, and I do think it probably looks pretty, too. Being properly valued and having real responsibility in the process seems like the far better way to go. But c'est la vie.
posted by AppleTurnover at 7:16 PM on May 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: PI was a little weird today so I apologized with something like "Maybe what I asked wasn't asked in the most diplomatic way and I apologize for that but I don't apologize for what I asked". He said "It's OK, lucky you are an excellent "my job" so I very much look forward to working together in the future". Meanwhile, the co-worker is not talking to me and I am not even trying to change that.
posted by sabina_r at 5:38 AM on May 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

If he spent less than an hour on this then I think you've nothing to apologise for, unless you were downright insulting him by letting the lead author know you did more work. I have colleagues who drive me mad by appearing more involved and knowledgable than they are by simply emailing more and talking more at meetings (all the talking!), and talking about how busy they are, how many hours they're working. Author order is a big deal wrt promotions and esteem, and you were definitely right to ask for the credit.

I agree with others that you could de-prioritise helping him on these projects.
posted by hannahlambda at 6:15 AM on May 11, 2015

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