What if a laid-off employee refuses to return his laptop to the company?

QUESTION:

What should I do if a laid-off employee won’t return his laptop to the company? It has confidential information on it, and it’s a company laptop.

ANSWER:

Ethan Stone

Ethan Stone

by Ethan Stone, Stone Business Law

First, a quick but important clarification: I’m not your lawyer and this answer doesn’t establish a lawyer-client relationship. I’m giving a generic answer to a generic question to educate the users of this site. The information below is general in nature and should not be understood as a substitute for personal legal advice.

There are several approaches that might make sense, depending on the specifics of the situation. Unfortunately, you shouldn’t take any of these actions without consulting with a lawyer about your specific situation, since all of them depend a lot on the specific facts and involve the application of various laws and regulations or your chances in court.

If the employee is still getting any severance benefits, take a look at the release agreement he (hopefully) signed when he left. If it’s well drafted, it should give you the right to cut him off if he refuses to return company property. Depending on the agreement and your state’s employment laws, you might also be able to sue him to get back what he’s already received. If there’s a lot of severance still to come, that can be very effective.

Another approach is to try the “nuclear option” and look into making a criminal complaint to the police for theft of trade secrets. You need to talk to a lawyer before you do this to evaluate the specifics of your situation, including whether there are, in fact, trade secrets involved. You should only do this if you are prepared to see the person prosecuted. Once you start the process, the ultimate choice won’t be yours. You should never threaten to report someone to the police, as opposed to informing him that you’ve done it. That can constitute extortion which is itself a crime. The disadvantages of this route are obvious. The advantage is that it can produce a dramatic result at relatively little cost.

Finally, you could just sue the guy for misappropriation of your property and/or trade secrets. If you win, you will ultimately be able to get the sheriff to go in and seize the property (you might be able to get it seized in the interim, but you’d have to talk to a litigator about that possibility). The problem with this route is that it isn’t fast and can be fairly expensive. On the other hand, if the guy doesn’t have the money to defend the suit (and you have enough to bring it), he might fold fairly quickly.

Good luck.

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Comments & Advice:
  1. Mike says:

    I was fired from a Fortune 500 company and was treated quite unjustly. On top, they didn’t pay me my proper severance.

    I have yet to return the company laptop after 4 months. It does not contain any confidential information.

    They asked for it about 3 months ago, but have never heard from them since.

    Can I just keep the darned thing?

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