Hey, It’s August . . . We Call This “Protect Your ‘Rolodex’ Month”

Seven Ways to Ensure Your Contact Info is Never Lost

“As a general rule, the most successful [person] in life
Is the [person] who has the best information.”

– Benjamin Disraeli

ACTUAL CASE HISTORIES: For over three decades, I have assisted employees in the navigation and negotiation of their issues and opportunities at work. In that time a great deal of my time has been devoted to advising clients on matters related to job termination and severance.

In each and every severance agreement I can remember, there have been two provisions that each say, one way or the other, “All contact information that you have on your computer and in your office – whether it is regarding customers, clients, colleagues, vendors – belongs to the Company, and you must not take it with you.” These provisions are titled “Company Property” and “Confidentiality and Proprietary Information,” or titles of similar wording.

A good number of my clients have said to me, “My digital contact list is something I have been putting together for decades . . . in fact, most of the contact information on my office computer is my own, assembled by me long before I came to this job.” My response has always been: “Well, you may now have a big problem getting it back.”

Any employee who places his or her own contact information on the employer’s computer, on the employer’s cell phone, and even in the employer’s desk in their office for that matter, may have a very big problem, because they can instantly and without notice lose access to their computers, their phones and their offices. And even if they have access, copying or removing that contact information in the context of resignation, layoff or termination is near impossible, and even if somehow accomplished, quite risky.

Gone “without a trace” may be the names, addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses and other contact information of some, or even all, of the most important people in your work life and career. Could be hundreds or even thousands of names, addresses, email addresses, phone numbers, and even if such important data as their birthdays, their spouse’s names, or what college their kids have attended.

That information is extremely valuable and, in some instances, truly priceless. Once gone, it could take years to reassemble. Losing your contact information could mean years and years of setback to your daily job success and career advancement, surely not something to take lightly.

Over the years, I have come to the unalterable conclusion that it is primarily to withhold contact information from departing employees that (i) many employers often do not give prior notice of termination, (ii) many employers shut off access to computers before they give notice of termination, and (iii) almost every employer puts language in their severance agreements, that I’ve noted above, stipulating that all information on their equipment is theirs, and ask you to acknowledge that as a condition to receiving severance.

Might I be wrong? I highly doubt it, because information is so valuable to businesses, and if an employer can lay claim to owning it exclusively, doing so can only be to the benefit of the company. In the hands of a former employee, it could mean the possible loss of customers, vendors, revenues, employees . . . and a whole lot of potential future business.

LESSON TO LEARN: Business contact information is extraordinarily valuable to job and career. Like all things that are valuable, business contact information (a) should not be left in places you may lose access to, (b) should not be trusted to the hands of people who may not later return it to you, even when it is provably your property, and (c) should not be placed in circumstances where others may lay claim to its ownership. It’s like leaving a pile of cash in the ATM machine – the next six customers may claim it is theirs – and you have no good way to prove it’s yours.

Wise people take necessary precautions. When it comes to your business contact information, you most certainly do so whenever and wherever you can.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Here are eight ways to ensure your very valuable business contact information – or any part of it – is not needlessly lost:

1. Understand that the law presumes that information placed (a) on your employer’s computer, (b) on your employer’s cell phone, or (c) in your employer’s desk, is presumed to belong by your employer. The law operates on a rather common-sense presumption that “what is in your employer’s office, or on its computers or other equipment, belongs to your employer.” Makes a good deal of sense, just as does “The furniture and dishes in my house presumably belong to me.” Since business-related information is not as obviously personal as is a set of dishes, it is presumably a business asset, as opposed to a personal asset.

Of course, that is only a presumption, which could be overcome by, for example, a written agreement between you and your employer that says something different, or if common sense and daily experience suggests otherwise. For example, a raincoat hanging on the back of the door in your office on a rainy day that has your name sewn into the label is quite obviously yours.

Information is different and special, and is not as easy to identify with one owner or another as is a raincoat. You must understand and accept this legal presumption, and act wisely and prudently to protect yourself . . . and your information.

If there is a dispute over who owns or my possess contact information that is your own, it is definitely preferable that a former employer has to come to you for it, and you don’t have to come to them, to get it back.

2. BEFORE you place your business (or personal) contact information on your employer’s equipment or office premises, make sure you have a complete set or “back-up” at home. It is unfortunate, but many employees, in their first weeks on a new job, as a matter of convenience, transfer contact information regarding former (a) business colleagues, (b) business acquaintances, (c) customers or clients, (d) vendors, (e) assistants, (f) employers, (g) partners, (h) recruiters, and even (i) family and friends. It is something that should never be done, whether it is your first week on the job, or your tenth year working for your employer, it makes no difference.

3. As to information gathered during the course of your job, if it is available to the public, and it is not yet placed into your employer’s equipment, it is not yet “proprietary” information. When you meet a vendor, for example, his or her name and contact information is still available to the public, without effort, and not a business secret. It only becomes arguably “proprietary,” that is, “owned” by your employer, once, during your work time, while on salary and benefits, you place it into a place or circumstance – such as on your company laptop – where it does become proprietary, because you have spent the time and effort to do so while on company payroll.

So, as you become aware of, learn and gather new contact information, we suggest that – before it is placed onto any company equipment, you either use “pen and ink” to write it down, put the vendor’s business card into your pocket or wallet, to be taken home and added there to your own business contact list at home. Alternatively, photocopy the business card, and place it into your briefcase. Only after doing so by these non-digital means, should you then place it into your employer’s possession, that is your office computer, cell phone or desk drawer.

4. The riskiest ways to gather contact information – although perhaps the easiest – Is by download from your office laptop, desktop or cell phone to a thumb drive, or by email transmission to your home computer. Using any digital means to “gather” and/or “take possession of” business contact information – whoever it belongs to – is unwise in the extreme. It leaves a permanent “digital fingerprint” that you have done so. Once it is on your employer’s digital equipment of any kind, it is presumptively the employer’s property, and taking it digitally is like photographing yourself in the act of theft. Yes, it is that foolish and harmful.

If “digital means” are used to gather and take possession of contact information, and it is done in the days or hours before or after resignation or termination, it is the literally the very height of risk-taking behavior in the workplace. The likelihood that using digital means when leaving will get you terminated for misconduct is considerable.

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5. That is why we suggest a cautious, gradual, and safer approach to gathering and protecting contact information – if not daily or weekly, then at least each August, when things are fairly quiet in most workplaces. As noted above, daily or even weekly gathering of contact information at home is preferred. But for those who just “never have time,” this month might be the best time for you to gather contact information you have mistakenly or forgetfully placed on office equipment before saving at home.

Whenever you gather your contact information, it should best be done (a) without the assistance of office assistants or IT personnel, (b) not digitally but either by photocopy or “pen and ink,” and (c) without undue fanfare, but rather in the ordinary course of your workday activities.

6. If you have resigned or have received termination notice, it could be quite risky to gather contact information at that time without prior and written authorization, as doing so could be declared misconduct and used against you. As noted above, when employees either resign or are terminated, employers frequently rush to limit the employee’s access to their computers, in good part to prevent employees from gathering up of valuable business contact information.

If this does take place, and you are found to have gathered contact information at that time or nearly so, or attempted to gather proprietary business information without prior authorization, that could be used against you to (a) fire you for “cause,”(b) deny you earned commissions, bonus, stock or other monies due you, and (c) even deny you severance and unemployment benefits.

What is a bigger risk – probably (90% chance) losing all of your contact information, or possibly (20% chance) being treated quite harshly by your former employer? Only you can decide.

7. If you have resigned, or received termination notice, you might want to request authorization to work alongside an IT technician to retrieve contact information that is rightfully yours. I have worked with many clients in seeking to obtain their personal property from their former employers when the employment relation ends, whether by resignation, termination or otherwise. If the personal property consists of the proverbial “family photos,” the children’s artwork hanging on the walls, or the galoshes and raincoat in the reception area closet, its recovery is usually not a problem. However, if the personal property you seek is contact information, recovery is a far “thornier” problem.

In these situations, the only thing I have seen work is a direct, upfront appeal to return your own contact information, addressed to a senior-level manager, sent by email, raising the request (a) with respectful words, (b) in reasonable terms, (c) accompanied by a sound rationale. We generally do not suggest sending such a request to Human Resources, but instead to a manager, because Human Resource personnel are almost always without the authority and without the inclination, to resolve such an issue as it needs to be resolved.

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P.S.: If you would like to speak with me directly about this or other workplace-related subjects, I am available for 30-minute, 60-minute, or 120-minute telephone consultations. (Even 5-minute “Just One Question” calls). Just [click here.] Evenings and weekends can be accommodated.

If you have not done so on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, August is the ideal month to take steps to safeguard you business contact information at work. These seven ideas are offered to both motivate and help you protect your valuable contact information from “theft” by your employer. We strive to inspire our you to do so, and to provide to you information, insight and inspiration to help you navigate and negotiate for yourself in all aspects of your employment relation. That’s what SkloverWorkingWisdom™ is all about.

SkloverWorkingWisdom™ emphasizes smart negotiating – and navigating – for yourself at work. Negotiation of work and career issues requires that you think “out of the box,” and build value and avoid risks at every point in your career. We strive to help you understand what is commonly before you, and know what to “watch out” for. Now, the rest is up to you.

Always be proactive. Always be creative. Always be persistent. Always be vigilant. And always do what you can to achieve for yourself, your family, and your career. Take all available steps to increase and secure employment “rewards” and eliminate or reduce employment “risks.” That’s what SkloverWorkingWisdom™ is all about.

*A note about our Actual Case Histories: In order to preserve client confidences, and protect client identities, we alter certain facts, including the name, age, gender, position, date, geographical location, and industry of our clients. The essential facts, the point illustrated and the lesson to be learned, remain actual.

Please Note: This Email Newsletter is not legal advice, but only an effort to provide generalized information about important topics related to employment and the law. Legal advice can only be rendered after formal retention of counsel, and must take into account the facts and circumstances of a particular case. Those in need of legal advice, counsel or representation should retain competent legal counsel licensed to practice law in their locale.

Sklover Working Wisdom™ is a trademarked newsletter publication of Alan L. Sklover, of Sklover & Company, LLC, a law firm dedicated to the counsel and representation of employees in matters of their employment, compensation and severance. Nothing expressed in this material constitutes legal advice. Please note that Mr. Sklover is admitted to practice in the state of New York, only. When assisting clients in other jurisdictions, he retains the assistance of local counsel and/or obtains permission of local Courts to appear. Copying, use and/or reproduction of this material in any form or media without prior written permission is strictly prohibited. All rights reserved. For further information, contact Sklover & Company, LLC, 45 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 2000, New York, New York 10111 (212) 757-5000.

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