The Wall Street Journal recently wrote about how employees are surprised after being given notice that they have been laid-off that they cannot retrieve personal (and business related) information from their computers. The author notes that with advances in technology that often times blur the boundaries between work and personal pursuits, many employees are hit really hard when they cannot retrieve their personal contacts from their work PDA or computer:

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.

The author correctly notes that what information is the employee’s as opposed to the employers is probably going to be set forth in and governed by the employer’s policies. Often times these policies will be provided to the employee when he or she first starts:

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.

It is important to note that in California, it is extremely difficult for employers to enforce non-competition agreements due to a California Supreme Court ruling in Edwards v. Arthur Andersen last year. California employers can still protect company information through other means, such as establishing that the information is a trade secret, or is proprietary information.

Steps California Employers Should Take To Avoid Litigation Over Electronic Data

  • California employers need to establish a clear policy that establishes that the employee does not have any privacy expectation in any data stored on company owned computers or devises.
  • The policy should establish that all aspects of an employee’s use of company equipment can be monitored.
  • Employers need to have the employees sign an acknowledgment of electronic data and monitoring policy.
  • The employer should remind employees of the electronic data policy at least every year.
  • If employers do have trade secrets, they need to maintain strict protocols to ensure that only employees with a “need to know” have access to the information and take steps to ensure that the information is protected.
  • If an employee who has been laid off requests personal information from his or her computer such as family pictures, an employer’s accommodation of this request will be somewhat of a step towards minimizing the employee’s ill-will towards the company (and less likely to pursue litigation against the company).