Career Opportunities

The High-Tech Career Handbook

A weekly ComputorEdge Column and Podcast by Douglas E. Welch

Playing it safe

March 10, 2000

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Regardless of your computer career you will all go through some traumatic situations. Sometimes you suffer through a lengthy interview process and still don't get the job. You might feel trapped in a job you hate. Even resigning from a job can be traumatic. Regardless of how upsetting these situations might be, I can imagine that having the police show up at your door might be the most traumatic of all. The story that follows shows that even in the world of computer careers ethical lapses can have an effect far beyond the perpetrators.

What happened?

A computer programmer found himself facing police officers with a search warrant and an arrest warrant one evening. It seems that during a major layoff at his old company, employees started taking everything that wasn't nailed down. Despite his attempts to document his return of all company property he was lumped in with the others and accused of grand theft. The charges were subsequently dropped due to lack of evidence, but in the meantime this programmer spent several hours in custody, had to produce bail and, perhaps worst of all, lost his current job due to the arrest; a nightmare scenario for anyone.

In today's job market, layoffs, bankruptcy, mergers and acquisitions are simply a part of doing business. You must be prepared for such eventualities and understand how to protect yourself from situations like that above. Here are a few ways to make sure that you don't end up on the wrong side of the law.

Don't do it

While the situation above is extreme, too often workers assume that they are entitled to company property when they leave. This is both unethical and illegal. I don't care how badly you were treated or how underpaid you were, taking company property is a sure way to end up without a career, if not in jail. Even if the company doesn't press charges, there are certain to be rumors that will dog you wherever you go.

Sometimes people forget a very important rule when they are under stress. If you have to ask yourself whether something is wrong, it probably is. The very fact that you are questioning something shows that you are on the borders of ethical behavior. Save yourself problems in the future and back away from the situation.

Management was also at fault for not safeguarding their property during the layoff process. I have never been involved in a situation as bad as this one, but everyone knows there can be issues with terminated employees that require strict supervision and security. I think every layoff should be as humane as possible, but there needs to be a balance between kindness and protection.

Get it in writing

My best advice in these situations is to forgo any offers of property, no matter how benign they may seem. The chance of later issues over such offers taints them. If you really want to take something, make sure you get written and signed approval from the person making the offer. In fact, throughout your career, you want to get everything in writing. Memories can fade, but paper can be filed and used in your defense, should you ever need it.

Your documentation should begin the minute you start a job. Whenever you are assigned a piece of company property there should be a paper trail. Make sure you note serial numbers and any other identifying characteristics. When the time comes to return this property you will be able to prove that you are returning exactly what was assigned. Keep your files up to date whenever you replace equipment as well.

In most cases you will never need this documentation, but you are protecting yourself against the one time when you will. You never know how a job will end. Something that started out well can end badly through no fault of your own.

Bad situations can happen at large companies just as easily as small startups. The only way to protect yourself is to prepare for the worst and hope that you will never experience it. You will encounter people who do not share your ethics or morals. Your job is to avoid them, or failing that, do everything you can to prevent being caught in the trap these people are building for themselves.

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