Office Manager and Former Employee Stole My Ideas

Question: to Ask the Workplace Doctors about Stolen Ideas

I work in a small office (5 people). The place has been pretty shaky over the past few years for a variety of reasons. Many people have left and the handful of us who remain are not planning on being here long term. Our salesperson left to start his own competing advertising agency. He tried to take our clients with him upon leaving. Now that he has been gone a couple years, he has become buddy-buddy with our office manager. He takes her out for her birthday and buys her gifts. She mentioned to some of us that he was trying to sell her some kind of website with a sponsorship business model.

At first she was mad that he would try. Then several months later, he tweeted her a test of the site which I was unfortunate enough to see. Another layer of complexity to this issue is that she was asking me about the design of a site I was working on for a client. My co-worker’s site looks strikingly similar to the one I was designing for someone else. Ordinarily, I would say this isn’t any of my business and I should pretend like I don’t know. She and I were good friends.

But this is affecting my concentration at work and my interaction with her has not been good. I feel hostile toward her and am afraid that any little thing I tell her could be leaked to our competitor. And, knowing she is dishonest has really wrecked what I thought of her. I don’t know if she is aware that I know what she did, but I have a hard time hiding when something is up. Our accountant emailed me today to ask if something was wrong. She acts informally as our HR. I want to tell her what I know, but I don’t want to hurt my co-worker even though I don’t agree with her ethics. Do I confront my co-worker and if so, what do I say?

Signed, Feeling Robbed


Answer:

Dear Feeling Robbed:

Apparently there are a lot of things going on in what sounds like a business meltdown and this issue of possible ethical violations is just one of them. It’s difficult for an outsider to understand some of the issues involved, so I’ll have to simply focus on key points and hope you can adapt my response to your situation.You are concerned about the friendship between the former employee and your office manager. If you have a small office, I assume others are aware of it. He’s been gone for two years so that hardly seems to be a problem in and of itself. You don’t say if the owner of the business is on-site or not, but it’s likely he or she is aware of the communications they have. You obviously don’t like the idea of their friendship and suspect he has an ulterior motive. Still, that doesn’t make their friendship an ethical issue or reason to be angry at either of them. She may be hoping she can use his friendship to get a job when the business folds, as it sounds like it’s doing.

So, the only real issue is whether or not your creative ideas were solicited by the office manager then given to the former employee who used them for a website he is now selling back to your company or at least in which he is involving your company.(I’m assuming that because you originally labeled your question, “Coworker Hired Our Competition.”) It doesn’t seem possible for an office manager to make that decision on her own. Surely someone else is aware of the site and how your business will be involved in it.You think the office manager asked you about ideas you were developing for a client, then gave those ideas to the former employee to use in this website from which he will profit; and apparently your own company could profit as well. That would imply that the former employee and the office manager never thought you would see the site and recognize your work.At this stage you only know that you saw some striking similarities; but those could be happenstance or at least inadvertent. Or, they could be stealing your ideas. You won’t know for sure until the website is launched and you can closely compare the site with the one you developed, or are developing, for your client. (Unless you were able to save the evidence when you saw the test site.) So, that brings you to your decision about what to do.

One way to answer that question is to ask yourself what you think the business owner (the one most likely to be hurt by this) would want you to do. Your creative ideas are the intellectual property of the business while you’re working there. If you think those ideas were given to someone else who will profit from them, it would seem you have an obligation to report it. If there is some code of ethics you signed, perhaps that might give you the answer. Or, you could consider what could happen to you if later the situation were discovered to be unethical and they found out you knew about it.On the other hand, if you can’t prove that the sites are so similar there can only be one reason; your ideas were stolen; an investigation by the auditor or the owner won’t uncover much, unless the other website is up and running so clear comparisons can be made. That accusation will certainly create ill feelings between you and your former friend, the office manager, especially if the investigation is inconclusive.

You must be showing your feelings pretty obviously for the Auditor/HR person to seek you out to ask what is the matter. If she noticed it, the office manager noticed it too. If the office manager did not pass your ideas along to the former employee or doesn’t believe she did, she may think you are acting unfriendly for some other reason.That may be a reason to use your former close friendship and talk to her about what is bothering you. You don’t have to say you saw the website, if you weren’t supposed to. You could say you worry that he will use her to get inside information and ask her how she is avoiding that. Just introducing the topic may get things going.None of this provides your answer of course. There are too many dynamics for an easy answer.

But, perhaps it can help you think through things better and apply some logic to it when gut feelings aren’t the most helpful.The bottom line for you are these questions: Is the office manager committing an ethical violation apart from your suspicions? Can you prove your suspicions? What will happen if you can? What will happen to you if you don’t report it and more unethical things occur?Your best long-term solution seems to be the one you mentioned at the beginning; finding work elsewhere (or hanging on until new people replace the current ones).Best wishes to you with this challenging situation that involves so many variables. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what you decide.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.