about this column.
September 7, 2001
© 2001, Douglas E. Welch
Recent accounts would have you believe that computer sabotage is on the rise throughout corporate America. There have been reports of deleted data, purposeful virus infections, passwords that are suddenly lost when an employee is fired. While I will not deny that some computer sabotage does take place, I think the press' focus on this issue overplays the occurrences. What is true, though, is that the current economic climate, and less than gentle methods of handling layoff notices are contributing to an environment where more sabotage can and will take place.
All in the method
The problem with most layoffs today is the dehumanizing way in which they are performed. I was so effected by one such layoff in which many of my co-workers were treated unkindly that I stood up in an "all-hands" meeting afterwards and let management know just how bad it had been. When security guards are required to escort individuals off the premises it lends an air of criminality to an already demeaning procedure. Just when an employee needs their support structure the most, it is taken away from them.
Such layoffs leave everyone, both those leaving and those remaining, with feelings of anger and helplessness. These are the seeds from which sabotage and pilfering grow. Everyone becomes more concerned with "getting what they can" before they, too, are escorted out the door. It is the ever-present self-fulfilling prophecy, treat your employees like criminals and some will live up to your suspicions.
The first step to decreasing the risks of sabotage is more openness, more care and more kindness. Treat your employees as if you trust them and they will return the favor. Treat them like criminals and you will find you are breeding bad feelings that could cause loss of revenue and even bring down your company.
Layoffs are a fact of life at every company and yet most companies never prepare for that eventuality. Managers need to insure that projects under their care can continue even if a layoff occurs. Leaving a project in the hands of one employee can leave you no way to continue should that employee leave or be laid off.
You don't want to have to go fishing for passwords and data files after the employee has walked out the door unhappily. If you don't prepare for the departure of any employee, for any reason, you could be left holding a very expensive bag of useless technology.
I cannot blame the employee in this case, either, unless they are willfully holding back information. If companies don't make an effort to protect their projects, departing employees have no legal obligation to assist them after a layoff. That said, most employees will help out due to their own sense of propriety, but if a company has treated them badly, it will be difficult to gain their cooperation. To me, this isn't sabotage, but simply human nature.
I have written in the past about how high-tech workers can avoid trouble when a company undergoes layoffs or declares bankruptcy. (See Playing it safe, March 10, 2000, http://www.welchwrite.com/dewelch/ce/ce000310.asp) The most important rule to remember is to be aware of how your actions might be perceived, even if they fall into an ethical gray area.
Don't take company equipment or data, even when it is offered by management, unless you receive written proof that the company has released it to you. Even if you have a release you might want to decline the offer. You can't know how future management or bankruptcy managers are going to react in the future. If you are leaving a company you want to make sure that there are no strings attached that might entangle you in a future lawsuit. It is better to remain outside the fray.
Be especially careful of making derogatory statements about the company or its management. Such comments can bring suspicion to you even if you have done nothing wrong. You will have plenty of time to point out the company's faults once you are no longer an employee. Don't draw attention to yourself or you might find yourself under investigation.
Finally, get official sign-off, in writing on any company equipment for which you are responsible. This can include anything from a cell phone, to pagers to a company car. Get it in writing that you have returned the items. I would even include such items as user names, passwords, settings files and program documentation in this list today. You don't want to be receiving a panicked phone call once you leave.
Computer sabotage can happen, but when managers treat their employees with respect, even during a layoff, and employees protect themselves from baseless suspicions, everyone benefits.
about this column.
Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on Douglas' web page at: http://www.welchwrite.com/dewelch/ce/
He can reached via email at email@example.com
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