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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Is It Toxic? My Friend Is Taking Credit for My Work

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Welcome to “Is It Toxic?” our advice column for the most pressing questions you have about toxic work situations but didn’t know who to ask—until now. Here to help is Benish Shah, a startup operator who’s coached executives and managers on navigating toxic workplaces, negotiating exits, and architecting workplace policies to combat toxic cultures. She’s currently working on a book about creating anti-toxic workplaces. Have a question to submit? You can reach her at or @benishshah. And for more advice, visit our Toxic Aware hub.

Dear Benish,

My coworker and I have been friends for years and only started working together a year ago. I was more senior than her and have spent a lot of time opening doors for her and pulling her into meetings that she could not otherwise access. We’re in different departments so there’s no competition for roles. She’s become a little bit of a darling at work and I’m genuinely happy to see her grow. But lately…she’s been presenting my work as her own. We will brainstorm ideas over dinner or coffee and then I’ll see her pitching the idea at work, with no credit to me. I’ve also seen her showing off projects we worked on together years ago as “her” work when the concepting and strategy was all me, and the execution—which was beautiful—was her. When she’s asked how she got into this industry, she acts like it was all her, but I’ve gotten her every job she’s had, and even her freelance work got started through my network. Honestly, it’s not that I want the credit, but something about all of this feels like I’m being sidelined.

I keep reminding myself that she’s younger in her career and hasn’t learned that sharing credit makes you look better, not worse. I’m also trying to separate work interactions from personal friendships. I know that if this was a non-friend I’d be furious and would have already checked them. But my hands are tied and I’m wondering…is my friend toxic when she’s at work?

—Friends or Frenemies at Work

Dear Friends or Frenemies at Work,

Here’s the funny thing about supporting others: When we expect them to give us credit or thank us, we will always be sorely disappointed. Very few people are confident enough in their skillset to say “I’m only here because X person helped me.” That statement comes when you understand your own value, when you know how good you are, and when you are at the stage in life when sharing credit is seen as value-add rather than a devaluation.

It sounds like your friend is not at the phase of her career where she feels confident enough in her own contributions to be able to share credit. She’s still at a place where she feels she has to prove her worth in the workplace, leaving little room for anything else. It’s not right of her to take credit for your ideas, or to act as if she had no help getting to where she is—but ask yourself whether this behavior affects your role at work.

All to say, your friend isn’t toxic. She’s still maturing in her career and around the ability to be a good colleague and friend. However, there’s a chance that your friendship with her may become toxic—and bleed into the workplace—if you are beginning to feel resentful and unable to draw boundaries for yourself with her while at work.

If you search “Should I work with my best friend,” you’ll get a host of articles that vehemently discourage you from working with close friends. There are several reasons—some are the same reasons you shouldn’t be roommates with your close friends—but they likely can’t help you because you’ve already started working together.

I’ve worked with several of my closest friends. My best friend has been my boss, I’ve been business partners with others, and I’ve hired friends that reported into me. There have been a lot of learnings from each of those situations, but the biggest learning is this: Hierarchies at work have the danger of creating hierarchy in your friendship. Friendships cannot have hierarchies; when they do it’s unhealthy. You cannot have a healthy friendship outside of work when there is an unhealthy dynamic at work.

When you’re in a situation where you feel slighted, the likelihood of you becoming the toxic friend colleague goes up. So it’s a good time to mitigate that risk. There are two ways you can approach this:

Option 1: Separate the work from friendship entirely.

Set a clear rule with your friend that you want to keep work at work; meaning you don’t want to discuss it after hours. Set boundaries that you can both be comfortable (but mostly you because you’re the one that feels slighted in this situation).

My personal list of recommended boundaries:

  1. No brainstorming sessions or reviewing each other's work.
  2. Work communication should be limited to work emails and Slack. No texts or phone calls.
  3. Friend communication should be limited to phone and text. No Slack or work email.
  4. Listen to your friend talk about their work issues, but do not interject or try to solve them.
  5. If your friend asks you to help, ask them exactly what they need help with rather than trying to find a full solution for them.
  6. Do not treat them differently than other colleagues. Don’t be extra nice or extra hard on them. It always backfires.

These boundaries are for you to put in place to ensure you don’t end up becoming the toxic friend at work. They don’t have to be harsh or cruel when they are communicated; they can be introduced slowly through actions rather than trying to have an awkward conversation. Friends and colleagues are human relationships—they have to be handled delicately.

Option 2: Remove all expectations.

If you don’t feel comfortable setting boundaries, your other option is to accept that you will not get any credit for help you provide. This is hard and it can feel like an emotional rollercoaster, especially at first.

A few years ago, I helped get a friend a job and worked closely with her on her projects. Afterward, I would be in meetings or hear conversations with her using my strategies and words as her own. It was disconcerting and I often felt slighted and undervalued—as if all my support, time, and effort was taken for granted. It took me a long time to understand that her behavior was a reflection on her inability to give others credit rather than a reflection on how valued I was. But even with that realization I found myself hurt and exasperated at times.

Since then, I have a simple rule: If I help a friend with work, it’s a “help and forget” strategy. If they give you credit, amazing. If they don’t, it means nothing. You keep moving forward. If you feel like your friend is taking advantage of you, then you’ll need to make the decision to stop helping. It’s not easy, but it’s better than becoming resentful and toxic yourself.

Toxic behavior is not always a result of people being inherently bad. It’s often a result of an environment we’re in and the circumstances we’re dealing with. When you can recognize that your environment and circumstances aren’t bringing out the best in you, it’s important to check yourself and ensure you don’t become the toxic person in the scenario.

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