When Stephanie Moore joined a video meeting with her boss in September, she didn’t expect it to be her last day as the marketing company’s social-media manager. Instead of going over ideas for new campaigns, she watched on her laptop as her boss told her she was laid off, while the company locked her out of accounts and files visible on another monitor.
“All of this happened in a 30-minute meeting,” says Ms. Moore, a 27-year-old living in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Among the work she lost access to: spreadsheets, notes she took at work conferences and templates she made to assess a client’s social-media performance. She especially misses those templates. They didn’t contain sensitive company data, she says, but they would have helped her now as she does contract work and continues to search for a full-time job. (Her former employer declined to comment.)
She says the next time she is employed at a firm, she plans to regularly save her templates to her personal computer. Whether that will be allowed will be up to her next employer.
More than 100,000 tech workers in the U.S. have been laid off in 2023, according to Layoffs.fyi, a tracking firm. Some people found themselves booted off company servers faster than they could collect their belongings. Others who received more notice likely used that extra time to save contacts and other materials that could help in their next roles.
But beware: Not everything is fair game to take with you. There can be repercussions if you save and use emails and other documents that belong to employers, many of whom use systems to keep employees from taking things they shouldn’t.
Here’s what you need to know about taking your old work with you.
What kind of stuff can I take?
People should err on the side of caution when deciding what to take from a soon-to-be-former job, says Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business who focuses on the digital economy.
Personal information on your work device such as family photos or a running list of passion projects should legally be yours, Dr. Sundararajan says. But he and other experts warn against saving personal information on your professional devices in the first place, since the company could try to argue that it owns all data on its machines.
Beyond personal files, who owns what largely depends on how federal and state laws define trade secrets, and how a company decides to protect them. Taking your work contact list with you might be allowed in some states, but use of the information can be limited by stringent noncompete or nondisclosure agreements, employment and legal experts say. Someone who signs an NDA with a previous employer but then uses materials from that employer to go after its clients could face a lawsuit.
The Federal Trade Commission’s proposed ban on noncompete clauses in employment contracts could encourage employers to be more specific about what information is confidential and what is permissible to take, says Orly Lobel, director of the Center for Employment & Labor Policy at the University of San Diego School of Law.
The state of California, for one, doesn’t enforce noncompete agreements. State courts there have said customer contact information isn’t classified as proprietary information and can be downloaded and used in the former employee’s new position, Dr. Lobel says.
Research, ideas in development, designs and financial information likely fall under the company’s ownership, whether you have a noncompete or not, she adds. Hence, work-related files, documents, computer code or other items that aren’t public-facing are a no-no.
How do I save the files I want to take?
Many companies have technology that notifies them if someone forwards, downloads or prints sensitive information that isn’t meant to leave the company, security analysts say. They can also take extra measures to prevent files from leaving in the first place, or retroactively review your activity if there’s reason to suspect wrongdoing.
Even if you can send something to a personal email address, it doesn’t always mean you’ll be able to access it. Your employer has the option to delete or transfer data—even data that you created—to a new owner after getting rid of your work account.
For a personal file that doesn’t contain competitive information, grant your private email account access to it before you lose access to your work email. Open the file using your personal email account, go to File/Copy to ensure you can still access it if your sharing permissions end. You can also save the file as a PDF and send it to your personal email address, but you may not be able to access it if your employer has restrictions turned on.
Can I take my contacts list, and how do I do that?
If you plan to hold on to your contacts stored in Gmail, Microsoft Outlook or other common work systems, there are typically tools for downloading them into files you can upload elsewhere later. You can even download contact info that was automatically saved during ongoing correspondence.
For Gmail users, there’s a Google Contacts page that has export functions in the toolbar. That left-hand toolbar also lets you see and export your “Other contacts” who were automatically saved. Outlook has a similar process.
As for other connections, it’s best to keep track of them on LinkedIn. If your work email is connected to your LinkedIn account, be sure to set your personal email as the primary address before you go.
Can I take my work emails, and how do I do that?
When it comes to which emails you can take, context matters, Dr. Lobel says. An internal email that contains details about the employer’s strategy for the coming quarter or a client disclosing when an executive is leaving is different from an email from your boss telling you that you did a good job, or a colleague giving you a podcast recommendation.
Emails that don’t contain information valuable to your employer should be safe to take; just know that your employer can still keep track of what’s being moved around and when.
To send emails to yourself efficiently, security experts recommend organizing those messages you’d like to keep. First, in your Gmail sidebar, press the plus sign next to where it says Labels. Enter a new label name, then press Create. Label the emails you want to give that name to. When you’re ready to send them, select all the emails with that label, click the three vertical dots to access the More Options drop-down menu, then select forward as attachment and send it to your personal email address. Again, your access could be limited if your employer turns on restrictions, so you should talk to your boss directly if you are having trouble moving emails you want to take with you.
In Outlook’s left pane, right-click where you want to add the folder and then click New Folder. Name it, then press Enter. You can add emails to that folder, then select and forward them to your personal email address.
Can I save projects I created for the company?
Non-public-facing projects you worked on belong to the employer and should not be taken with you, cybersecurity and legal experts say.
While Ms. Moore might have wanted to save her templates at her next job, doing so could get her in trouble. Employers usually consider templates, conference notes and other similar work developed during a person’s employment to be the company’s property, Dr. Lobel says.
“This is overly broad and attempts to include things that are not secret and do not have competitive market value,” she says. “But it would come with great risk to the employee to download these kinds of work products and attempt to use them in the future.” Your previous employer could sue you, and you could get in trouble with your new company if you’re caught using data that belongs to your old one.
If you work in a profession where you need to maintain a portfolio to showcase your work, have a conversation with your employer before saving anything, in case there are legal nuances that apply, experts say—and make sure you get any permission in writing.
Anything in the public domain is acceptable to share, legal experts say. Linking to the work on your website or LinkedIn is an easy way to showcase that without the hassle.
How about my Slack conversations?
Slack and Microsoft Teams conversations could be safe to export, if they don’t contain sensitive information. However, your organization’s administrator would have to export them for you.
Perhaps your best bet is to keep handwritten notes. Consider jotting down low-risk information that is important to you. After all, if you’re dismissed unexpectedly and cut off from your company’s systems, your notebook will still open.
Source: WSJ.com March 16, 2023 | By Cordilia James