Michele Wallace had worked for Medialink Worldwide Inc. for 18 years when the New York video-distribution company laid her off last May. When the company’s information-technology staff quickly shut down her computer and her BlackBerry, the senior vice president of client services lost family photos and every personal and business contact on her cellphone and computer.
“I couldn’t even call my sister because I don’t know her number off the top of my head,” says Ms. Wallace, now a 47-year-old managing director at Mega Media Worldwide and living in Asbury Park, N.J. “I know you shouldn’t even have that stuff on the computer,” she says. But in the course of working 10- to 12-hour days for several years, “you don’t pay as much attention as to how much is personal on your computer.”
Since You Can’t Take It With You…
Limit the amount of personal files you keep at work and keep back ups at home.
- Be careful about downloading or printing out email contact lists. These typically belong to the company.
- Keep copies of your company’s electronic communications policy, employee guidelines and non-compete agreements.
- If you are laid off, ask if you can take personal files off your computer or work phone.
She’s still piecing together her contacts on Facebook and LinkedIn. (Medialink did not return calls for comment.)
As layoffs sweep across industries, employees’ personal information is winding up in the dustbin, as well. Most workers know better than to store personal files on their office computer. But employees who spend the majority of their time at the office often treat the company PC as their personal gadget, filling it with music, photos, personal contacts — even using the computer’s calendar to track a child’s soccer schedule. That makes it all the more distressing when a newly laid-off worker learns that his digital belongings are company property.
Most companies today have new hires sign electronic communications policies that generally state they have no rights to privacy or rights of ownership over the content on company computers. It doesn’t matter if those files are wedding photos or family phone numbers. “It still belongs to the company if it’s stored on a company-issued computer,” says Allison Brecher, director of information management and strategy and senior litigation counsel at consultants Marsh & McLennan Cos.
After someone quits or is laid off, a company will typically just delete those files, wiping a computer clean. In professions where communication between clients is important, like in sales or finance, companies might keep email correspondence for their records, says Jonathan Hyman, a partner at law firm Kohrman Jackson & Krantz PLL in Cleveland.
Earlier this year, Katie Morse was caught off-guard when she was laid off from a telecommunications company in Charlotte, N.C., where she worked in the marketing and communication department. After filling out paperwork and being briefed by her supervisors, she was escorted to her desk to collect her things. “Anything that was on my computer I didn’t have access to,” Ms. Morse, now living in Brooklyn, N.Y., says. “I honestly wish I was able to take my contacts with me.”
Companies often lock down computers and restrict access to email as soon as an employee is let go. “That could vary, but I think it’s safer to expect a harsh response,” says Janine Yancey, chief executive for emTRAiN, a human-resource training company.
Whether laid-off workers are allowed to retrieve personal files depends on the industry and the size of the business. “If you go into a bigger organization, they are going to implement a standard across the board,” which tends to be more restrictive, Ms. Yancey says. Smaller organizations may be more lenient. Some professions — brokers or financial advisers, for example — may be constrained by regulatory requirements with regards to the access they can give laid-off workers, Ms. Brecher says.
Companies often go to extreme lengths to protect themselves during layoffs. Some pore over their former employees’ emails, says Mr. Hyman. “If they think an employee has stolen anything, they will look for that,” he says. Companies fearing lawsuits from disgruntled former employees may have their IT department or an outside firm search through the emails, too, Mr. Hyman says.
From a business standpoint, companies that give laid-off workers access to work computers and email risk exposure to data theft, computer viruses and lost contact lists. “You don’t want somebody going in and downloading their whole contact base,” Ms. Yancey says. “That contact base belongs to the employer.”
A recent survey by the Ponemon Institute, a privacy research group in Traverse City, Mich., found that nearly 60% of employees who lost or left jobs in 2008 stole company data. The survey polled 945 adults from several industries who were laid off, fired or changed jobs in 2008. Data that was taken included non-financial business information, customer contact lists and financial information.
While human resource consultants advise businesses to use caution when dealing with laid-off employees, some are more lenient. Michelle Liro had five weeks’ notice that she was being let go as director of marketing at a telecommunications company. This gave her time to hunt for a new job and move email contacts of friends and colleagues to Facebook and LinkedIn. She was also able to take digital copies of banner ad campaigns and Web site graphics she designed.
The company even let Ms. Liro keep her work laptop after they wiped clean all of the files and software. “It only makes sense for companies to work with their employees,” says Ms. Liro, of Holliston, Mass. “You really do want to leave on a positive note.”
At Laughlin Constable, a marketing company in Chicago, laid-off or fired employees have their computer access limited and email restricted as soon as they are notified that they will be let go, says Joyce O’Brien, executive vice president of human resources.
“About 70 percent of our employees ask to have something off of their computer” when they are laid off, Ms. O’Brien says. Requests for personal files are reviewed by the IT department, human resources and the chief financial officer, she says. The company tries to give back personal information to laid-off workers as long as it isn’t a sensitive termination, Ms. O’Brien says. The personal files are retrieved by the company.
Employees are better off assuming that their company will take a conservative approach, says James Bucking, an employment lawyer for Foley Hoag LLP in Boston.
Employees worried about their job security should review the forms they signed when they were hired. They should look at the company’s electronic communications policy, employee guidelines and non-compete agreements to make sure they understand everything properly. When employees sign these agreements, they should also make copies to save at home, too, Ms. Yancey says. Those that break these agreements risk being fired or sued by their employer, she adds.
You should also be aware that the contact information for business associates made during employment and stored on an office computer — or even a Rolodex — usually belongs to the company, Mr. Bucking says.
When Tony Scida was laid off recently from his proofreader position at a small advertising agency in Richmond, Va., he didn’t take any email contacts from his computer because he signed a non-compete agreement. That didn’t much matter. He found most of them on Facebook and LinkedIn, and can contact them there.
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