Plagiarism in the Workplace: 10 Serious Consequences

Passing off other people’s work as your own won’t get you far.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Workplace Plagiarism

Plagiarism is a major challenge for employers and a significant career mistake.

It is becoming increasingly prevalent, thanks to new and easier ways to plagiarize, due to employees’ busier schedules and increased workload. The consequences of plagiarism are serious, and employees should be aware of the impacts of plagiarizing work.

This article discusses plagiarism in detail, including what it is, how it happens at work and what you should do if you’ve been caught plagiarizing work. We will also discuss the 10 most serious consequences of plagiarism.

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism is the action of appropriating other people’s work and attempting to pass it off as your own. It’s most associated with words or text but can also apply to images or artworks, formatting or style, and it can also apply to stealing ideas or passing off other people’s ideas as your own.

Using artificial intelligence programs to generate work, meanwhile, is another form of plagiarism, as AI content might include reused information from the data it uses.

In the workplace, plagiarism can be a serious concern, as it’s often a breach of policy, becoming a disciplinary matter or even being regarded as illegal or resulting in legal action.

How can you plagiarize in the workplace?

Some types of plagiarism in the workplace are more serious than others, but any form of plagiarism should be avoided, as they all have significant consequences.

Plagiarism in the workplace commonly occurs where one person copies someone else’s work and passes it off as their own, such as emails, spreadsheets or PowerPoint slides. Copyright infringement is another example, as is paraphrasing information or using other people’s ideas.

Someone who takes credit for a team’s work is also plagiarizing work, as this diminishes the rightful contributions of other people. Accidental plagiarism is also very common; this occurs when someone doesn’t cite sources in the correct way.

Consequences of plagiarizing in the workplace

1. Breakdown in trust

Plagiarism can destroy the trust between you and your employer or clients. Employers rely on their people to undertake work to the best of their ability and not cheat while doing so. If they discover you’ve been plagiarizing work, they’ll have good reason to doubt your abilities going forward, and it might impact your performance review too.

If you’re a freelancer and you plagiarize work for your clients, and this is discovered, this will impact their likelihood to order work from you going forward. Freelancing markets are competitive, and customers will have plenty of other options to choose from.

2. Damage to your own professional reputation

Career success is reliant on you being known and valued for good work, and plagiarism can damage your reputation significantly. If you’ve been found to have been plagiarizing work, peers and other professionals might find out. Consequently, you might find it hard to pick up new work, and it will be difficult for others to trust you, a situation that might have extra repercussions if you work in an industry where plagiarism has more impact, like academia or media.

Sometimes the office rumor mill can go wild, and even a small plagiarism issue can be blown up into something that can have lasting consequences on your professional reputation.

3. Disciplinary action

One of the most immediate and damaging consequences of plagiarism is disciplinary action. Most companies regard plagiarism as a breach of policy, and due to its seriousness, gross misconduct. This means that an allegation of plagiarism will be thoroughly investigated.

Potential sanctions coming off the back of investigation and disciplinary hearings could be a formal warning, demotion, suspension or, in the most serious cases, termination of employment. Your employer can also reserve the right to deem the allegation so serious that external action is taken, such as criminal or legal escalation.

4. Ethical considerations

From a business conduct point of view, plagiarism raises many ethical concerns and will bring your professional integrity into question. If it’s discovered that you have plagiarized work, you have essentially lied, cheated or stolen work, all of which are conduct issues that fall under company business ethics policies.

Business ethics is an area that is coming under greater and greater scrutiny, with high profile breaches of this reaching the national and international press. Therefore, if you have acted in a way where work has been completed dishonestly, this is a direct contravention of ethical guidelines and can have serious repercussions.

5. Impact on your professional development

Often, work is plagiarized because it’s easier and faster than working through a task or project independently. If you plagiarize work, you’re skipping the developmental aspect of working on tasks, meaning that you’re not learning while working, one of the main principles of adult learning.

Therefore, if you persistently plagiarize work (even if this isn’t discovered), you’ll learn less, and this will impact your career development. If you’re stealing other people’s ideas, this will impact your ability to think creatively, write effectively and come up with innovative ideas to solve problems.

6. Impact on your mental and financial wellbeing

Being found to be plagiarizing work can impact you mentally due to the stress of being taken through investigation and disciplinary processes, as well as the threat of potential legal action. Many people who plagiarize work also feel less satisfied with their output because, at the end of the day, it isn’t their own and there is less to feel proud of.

The impact of plagiarism on your financial wellbeing is primarily caused by the impact of losing your job and the time spent on finding a new one. If you’re taken to court because of plagiarism allegations, you might have to spend a great deal of money on legal representation and damages if you’re found guilty.

7. Legal consequences

As mentioned above, many companies, especially those that might be more seriously impacted by allegations of plagiarism, may pursue legal action against you if you’re found to have plagiarized work.

This could include creative industries where a large or valuable idea has been copied, media where publications have been plagiarized, academia where bodies of study are not genuine, or even financial services where plagiarized economic models or forecasting have caused dishonest financial gain.

8. Long-term career damage

Plagiarism can result in more than just a blip in your professional or academic career. For reasons of trust and damage to your reputation, proven allegations of plagiarism can follow you throughout your career journey and might lead to you not progressing or finding senior roles, losing your client base, or you needing to consider changing career or even relocating.

In some plagiarism cases, companies might have a moral or legal obligation to disclose what you did to their industry or to mention these allegations when writing a reference for you.

9. Reputational damage to the company

If you’ve been found to have plagiarized work, the consequences don’t all sit on your shoulders; your company will suffer as well. Companies that have willingly or unwillingly allowed plagiarism to take place will also suffer long-term reputational damage.

This might include loss of business, loss of investment, or legal repercussions. Consequences might also include a loss of academic integrity, creative spark and capacity for innovation. These impacts can affect a company for a very long time, and some never manage to recover.

10. Wasted time and resources

When an allegation of plagiarism arises, companies have an obligation to investigate this fully and follow up on what happened to ensure something similar doesn’t occur again. This takes time, resources and, obviously, money. Consequently, plagiarism diverts critical resources away from positive and business-enhancing tasks.

Time and resources can also be used up in replacing individuals who have been dismissed because of plagiarism issues, and this, in turn, has knock-on effects regarding productivity and efficiency at work. Companies might also have to invest in expensive software such as plagiarism checkers to manage such situations.

What to do if you’ve been caught plagiarizing in the workplace

Being caught plagiarizing in the workplace will never be an easy situation, but if it happens, the first thing you must do is acknowledge what happened, take responsibility and apologize. Not doing this or making excuses will only make the situation worse.

Next, see if there is a way to amend the plagiarized content, rewrite your essays, or ask your manager or the affected stakeholder if there’s anything that could be done to correct the situation. Although you must accept any consequences that might come your way, such as disciplinary action, seek support where needed.

When you’re out of the other side from what happened, use the experience as a learning opportunity to prevent it from happening in the future.

Final thoughts

Plagiarism has serious impacts on employees as well as their places of work. It involves the misappropriation of images, words and ideas, and includes using AI in certain ways. The consequences of plagiarism range from impacts on your career to financial, legal and ethical consequences. Your place of work can be impacted too.

To avoid plagiarism in the workplace, ensure you cite your sources by using quotation marks and other approved referencing formats, and work through projects diligently and in a timely manner, so you will not be pressured into taking short cuts. By creating your own work, you’ll have something to be proud of while learning and developing yourself along the way.

This article is a complete update of an earlier version originally published on November 25, 2016.