The short answer is, talk to an expert in employment law before you copy, forward or remove anything from the workplace to support your current or future claim against your employer. A Kia Motors employee in Georgia with a pending discrimination claim, Robert Taylor, lost his job because the company found out he was forwarding, downloading and copying hundreds of documents to support his case. I did not handle that case but did just see the court opinion approving his firing.
Preserving Evidence the Wrong Way Can Get You Fired
Taylor, the employee, had previously signed a confidentiality agreement giving him access to Kia’s internal employee network. But the agreement only talked about access. It didn’t say he could copy or print anything. During a routine company IT search to check for document theft, Kia Motors learned that Taylor had forwarded a huge number of emails and documents to a personal email address. It then fired him and he eventually lost his discrimination case because the employer now had a legitimate reason for firing him. In other words, a proper discrimination case was ruined because of the improper removal of evidence to support it.
It should not surprise you that most employers tightly monitor employee computer usage. It might surprise you, however, to learn that most larger office photocopiers have internal hard drives that store what you copied. So your employer can push a button and print out everything you just ran though it – resumes, confidential documents, whatever. Many employers also use software to track what you printed, by file name and number of pages. And of course they can track email forwards, including bcc’s.
How to Gather Evidence Against Your Employer the Right Way
There are several ways to collect and store workplace documents and other evidence without directly jeopardizing your job. First, read workplace policies on copying, forwarding or downloading documents. Second, read any agreements you’ve signed about handling confidential information. Third, if there are no policies – in other words if copying, downloading or printing doesn’t violate any specific rules in place – and you haven’t signed any agreements, rely on your common sense. Do the documents contain obviously confidential matters, such as patient names, medical information, customer names, or company methods and practices that might be trade secrets? Are the documents kept somewhere that tells you the information was meant to be kept secret? Are the documents in a locked cabinet or in a password-protected drive or file?
If you can’t legitimately remove or duplicate documents, consider alternatives. For example, if there’s a critical email you want preserved, you could forward it to HR and ask them to preserve the email because it is evidence in your case. You could do the same with documents. Forwarding them to HR is unlikely to violate any policy, and creates duplicate copies as well. Courts severely punish employers who destroy documents and companies know that. So it’s a good method for achieving your evidence-preservation goals. The company will be forced to keep them for you.
There are other ways as well, although I’m not going to talk about them here. Employers and their lawyers have told me they read my columns, too, so I can’t go further here. But if you have questions let me know. And if you’ve already removed documents and are worried about the risks, you can ask me about that as well. You can email me directly at Jim@JimGarrityLaw.com.
Employee Rights Lawyer, Florida & Georgia