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Companies, computers and cellphones: Let’s not make this personal

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

Panic sets in when, not only are you informed you no longer have a job, but you cannot go back to your workspace, and worse yet, you need to hand over all your employee property, including the cellular phone you have been using for personal matters. The phone also contains your personal e-mail, or worse yet, you have been using your work e-mail for personal reasons. Also gone are the personal photos you have taken, some you definitely do not want the employer to see. But they will, because you have to hand it back. Right now.

Using company property for personal use has become dangerously commonplace for everyone involved. Rarely do employees personally back up material saved on company computers and, especially, cellphones. Equally rare is it when employers, upon providing the employee with a phone or computer, carefully outline the personal and professional expectations of the device use.

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It does not seem to be obvious or common knowledge that whatever the employer gives the employee to do their job with is owned by the company. This includes office space, computers and training materials, office supplies, and especially computer memory, cellphones, tablets, laptops, etc. In addition, the employer is under no obligation to return any personal items that rest in or on company property. Many employees are finding this out the hard way.

Luckily, many employers are becoming a bit more understanding to this new-found situation, as providing all employees with phones and computers is commonplace in many companies, regardless of role. Some companies are allowing employees time to delete personal material off phones, or keep the phone outright.

For personal material on computers, this can be a different story. Employees can expect that all files they request from the company will be carefully scrutinized by the manager and/or the IT department. Anything deemed proprietary to the company, regardless of the material being public, confidential or not, will likely be kept by the company and not returned. This includes any award winning project work you have done, portfolio pieces, etc.

There really is no win-win here. Proactive steps can be taken, however, that clearly lay out expectations and trigger the common sense approach.

What employers can do

1. Have an 'acceptable use' policy for all employee property, carefully outlining what the property can and cannot be used for.

2. Create an understanding about what protocol the company takes when it comes to voluntary or involuntary employee departures and the company property, especially the cellular phone.

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3. If the phone and/or the number is to be kept by the employee upon departure, include instructions on how to port the phone or transfer the number to a personal device.

4. If the phone is to be returned upon leaving the company, consider giving the employee a few moments to clean off any personal material that may be on the phone.

5. Hold periodic town halls or communication moments that reiterate how to responsibly use company property.

What employees can do

1. Don't 'move in' to your workspace. It is fine to personalize your space with a few photos and such, but keep it reasonable, and especially, easy to gather in case you need to make an unexpected departure or someone has to gather your things for you.

2. Carry two phones – one that work gave you and one for personal use. This does seem cumbersome but in the event you need to return the phone, there are no concerns.

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3. Avoid keeping personal material in the company computer. If you do, make sure you have copies saved at home. Remember the employer can see those mortgage papers, divorce agreements, or anything else you may have saved on the company computer.

4. If you bring your own phone and number to your work and the employer pays the bill, make sure the employer understands that when you leave, your phone and number leaves with you regardless of the circumstances.

5. E-mail or take home a copy any work that is appropriate and non proprietary/confidential to keep for portfolio purposes, especially if you need it to show a prospective employer as part of our interview process.

We all enter into an employment agreement with good intentions and good faith, but setting boundaries around appropriate use of property is a good way to ensure that any separation is as amicable and stress-free as possible.

Eileen Dooley is vice-president of VF Career Management, a Canada wide, career transition firm.

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