Where do you turn when a colleague claims your work as her own?
A reader sent us one of the toughest questions we’ve ever received. It’s a sordid tale of deceit and misrepresentation, but we’ll let him tell you about it:
Dear Hired Guns,
I’ve got an odd one for you. My former company was acquired a few months ago, and I was laid off in the process. A former colleague is still there, but she’s obviously looking elsewhere. She asked me to recommend her for a role at another company and sent me her resume. When I opened it, I discovered that she was claiming many of my accomplishments as her own! She’s claiming that she spent the last few years building a successful department–my successful department–when her actual role was much more junior. When I confronted her about this, she became indignant and refused to change her resume. Now that we’ll be applying for the same roles, I’m afraid her cribbed resume will damage my chances. What should I do?
Anxious in Ad Tech
Frankly, Anxious, that’s a heck of a predicament. You’re absolutely right to be concerned that this might damage your job prospects. Then again, it might not be as bad as all that.
The Bad News
Simply put, there’s not much you can do to force your former colleague to stop lying on her resume. Business attorney Fran Slusarz noted that before pursuing any legal action, you’d have to prove that Ms. Pants-on-Fire’s inflated resume was directly responsible for damaging your career. And since an employer can cite any number of reasons for not hiring an applicant, proving that you lost out due to your former colleague’s misrepresentation will be next to impossible.
According to Slusarz, sending a cease and desist letter is an option, but without any real legal recourse to use as leverage, the letter is bound to be a bit toothless. Slusarz pointed out that you could threaten to alert decision makers in your industry about her shenanigans, but let’s be honest–that strategy will reflect just as negatively on you as it will on her.
So you might not have a legal leg to stand on, but don’t worry–you won’t need it.
The Good News
You’ve got every right to be angry about this situation. But the chances that it will seriously impact your own job search are minimal. Here’s why:
Recruiters can spot shameless puffery a mile away. If her resume shows her suddenly jumping from a junior role to a senior one and then immediately knocking it out of the park, alarm bells will definitely sound. And on the off chance that your resume ends up in a side-by-side comparison with the dishonest document, any recruiter or hiring manager will be inclined to believe the more senior candidate. They might choose to ask a connection at your former company or someone in their network who knows you (ad tech is a small world, after all). But even more likely, they’ll pick up the phone and call both of you.
What do you think will happen then? Will she-who-must-not-be-named be able to speak to your accomplishments in a convincing manner? Will she be able to convey the challenges of the role and her strategies for overcoming them? Of course not. But you will, and that’s all a recruiter or hiring manager will need to hear in order to know who’s telling the truth.
And should you find yourself in an interview at a company where she’s likely to apply, you’ve got a great opportunity to cover your bases. When they ask you about your accomplishments, give them plenty of details, including how you couldn’t have done it without the people on your team–especially her. Don’t dwell on it, but you can devote 20 or 30 seconds’ worth of airtime to praising the work your team did, especially given how junior and inexperienced they were.
In sum, you probably can’t stop her from laying claim to your work, but there’s only a slim chance that it will matter. So play it smart, cover your bases, and take the moral high road. It might not be quite as satisfying as forcing her to give in, but it’ll pay off in the end.