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Taking a serious academic look at what has long been grist for office gossip – the workplace idea thief – a team of University of Toronto researchers has found that knowledge theft in organizations “is not only happening; it’s happening a lot.”

Their high-profile paper on the issue, recently presented to the Academy of Management annual meeting, noted: “We have all worked with … [those] colleagues who get ahead by taking credit for another person’s work or who take our ideas and present them as their own.”

Victims of knowledge theft are less inclined to share their thoughts. Once burned, twice shy. They have lost out on recognition, rewards and promotion in some cases, say authors David Zweig, an associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management, and Alycia Damp, a PhD candidate at the university’s Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources.

Organizations that rely on innovation and collaboration to stand out – but dismiss such appropriation as competitive zeal or “the way we do things around here” – will find that the flow of ideas and knowledge transfer dries up, they said in interviews. It is premature to try to quantify the financial costs of such lost potential, but an initial survey – “our first crack at it” – found that knowledge theft is rampant in workplaces across all sectors, Mr. Zweig said in an interview.

“We surveyed 150 people and just asked them ‘Has this happened to you, have you seen it?’”

“Amazingly, 91 per cent of our sample either reported it had happened to them, or they had seen it happen to others. We even had people say that they did it to other people. So it’s not a low-base-rate kind of thing; it’s happening with great frequency in organizations,” Mr. Zweig said.

The topic resonated. When acquaintances got wind of their work, “everyone had a story to tell,” Ms. Damp said. The Academy of Management, a global association of management and organizational scholars, recognized their work as a “best paper” at its annual meeting.

One of the goals of the U of T research is to raise awareness of knowledge theft and help organizations understand, measure and mitigate the occurrence, “given the importance of effective knowledge management to the success of organizations,” Mr. Zweig said.

While some victims will deliberately withhold knowledge – or, less commonly, call out the knowledge thieves – others retreat into “defensive silence,” Ms. Damp added. “They are actually afraid to share knowledge because they anticipate they will be exploited again.”

Future research will probe the motives of the perpetrators and the strategies victims employ to protect ownership of their ideas, they said.

If the corporate culture is conducive to civilized resolution of such issues, it’s easier to take the high road by saying something along the lines of “I am so glad you were able to work with my idea,” says Eileen Chadnick, a Toronto-based management adviser and career coach.

In a cutthroat environment, Ms. Chadnick would advise the aggrieved party to weigh the options and proceed with caution. It’s important to assess the magnitude of the damage and the benefits of making a fuss. If a person’s reputation has been damaged by a colleague’s appropriation of their work, do they have to courage to confront the individual and set the record straight? Are there still opportunities that make it worth sticking around, or is it time to move on?

“Organizations that tolerate bad behaviours and unethical actions will lose their [high-potential employees],” Ms. Chadnick said in an interview.

One outcome Ms. Damp hopes will arise from the research is that leaders will become “more mindful of who is doing what.” It’s particularly galling to the victims of knowledge theft when the people who stole their ideas are promoted, the U of T researchers said.

Even when they move to organizations that value their work and treat everyone fairly, people who had their ideas pirated in the past can find it difficult to engage in free-wheeling knowledge sharing, Ms. Damp said. “I’ve had some individuals who shared stories about their knowledge theft experience from 10 or 20 years ago, and they are still more protective than they used to be.”

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