Picture this: one of your employees is unhappy with their position and pay. Unfortunately, the situation cannot be resolved in a way that satisfies both them and the company, and they end up deciding to leave amicably. All is well, that is, until you find out that before they left, they decided to take a big portion of their work product with them. Can they legally do that, or does the work product belong to the company?

This question was raised in a now-viral TikTok video that has garnered over 3 million views. A TikTok user (@_queerbigan) detailed the situation at the end of her employment. In her video, she explains her experience working for her former employer, claiming that she was underpaid and often under appreciated. On her own volition, but likely on the employer’s clock, she prepared training materials on her position to make her job easier. Upon her voluntary departure, she decided to “assert her boundaries” against her employer and take the training documents she had created with her.

The video shows that a former coworker later reached out to ask about the training documents. According to the image, the coworker was going to be training a new employee and wanted to use the former employee’s training documents to aid the process. The TikTok user was quick to respond that she had taken them and was not planning on giving them back, unless the former employer wanted to buy them from her. The user continued to post videos to the platform as “updates” on the situation, explaining that she feels as though she made the documents and was not in fear of being sued.

Public response to the user’s story was mixed. Many viewers debated the legality of the practice. Some applauded her for asserting her boundaries, while others urged her to take the video down and rid any evidence of her admission to taking the documents. Still, the question for employers remains; can an employee do this without repercussions? If not, what protections can employers utilize to save employee work product?

The short answer is no: employees are often not allowed to take more than the personal items that they brought from home to decorate their office. However, employers should take steps to insulate themselves from future issues such as this one. It is incredibly important that employers have policies dealing with what employees are allowed to retain when severed from the company. If a policy or employee handbook exists defining what kinds of work product constitutes employer assets, then an employee who does what the TikTok user did can be held liable for breach of contract. Furthermore, depending on the documents taken by the employee, violations of nondisclosure agreements and the misappropriation of trade secrets could occur. Ultimately, dealing with departure issues such as this leads to a rapid decline in trust and quickly burns bridges.

Below is a list of best practices for employers to use to avoid such an issue:

  • Explicitly state in company policies or handbooks that anything created by employees on the clock, or for the purposes of work, belongs to the employer and must be returned upon separation of employment, or otherwise produced when asked.
  • Communicate with employees about taking work product for future employment portfolios. Require that permission be given before any work samples are taken.
  • When a departing employee has work-related information on personal cellphones or laptops, have them remove the information, especially if the employer has a policy that forbids the use of personal devices at work.
  • Ensure that employees are aware of what is considered “company assets.”
  • Conduct an exit interview to try and keep relationships cordial upon departure.
  • Remind employees about the importance of positive recommendations from former employers.

The attorneys at Fishel Downey regularly advise employers on issues relating to an employee’s separation from employment, including how to protect tangible and intangible assets or work product. If you have a specific question or scenario, and would like assistance, contact one of the attorneys at Fishel Downey Albrecht & Riepenhoff LLP at 614-221-1216.