Do fired workers have right to clean their desk?

Consoling your friend when she gets laid off gets awkward if you're the one who gave her the pink slip iStockphoto

Dear Evil HR Lady,

My company for the past six years terminated my employment yesterday. It came unexpectedly, and I'm trying to learn my rights. After years on the job, I have many personal items at my desk -- some are obviously mine, like pictures, some are not so obvious, like articles and letters of recommendations buried in stacks of papers. HR is telling me they will not allow me to go clean up my desk and gather my items -- not even supervised -- and that this is company policy. They say that if I describe to them what I have, they will bring it down to me. The problem is I don't remember item for item what is mine.

I'm very worried I won't get something that is mine returned to me. Is this legal? I heard that companies have a legal obligation to let you gather your items, that they can't go through your stuff without you there.

You heard wrong. Think about it this way. Your neighbor lets you borrow his tool box. You take it to your house and you use some of the tools within the box. But you forget to put it away immediately and six months later you still have all the tools and they are spread out and mixed in with your tools. They are somewhere in your house. Your neighbor asks for them back.

Legally, they are his. But you're not sure what is his and what is yours. He doesn't remember what tools were in the toolbox. Would you be OK with it if he came and went through your entire house, looking for what was his? Probably not.

Now, you're not looking to do anything untoward, but some companies become incredibly paranoid after they fire someone. And for good reason -- people you have just fired are not likely to be feeling warm and fuzzy toward you. Plus, there's that whole awkwardness of having you standing right there, in your cube, while your former coworkers try to figure out what to say to you. "Umm, tough deal, Bob!" 

Now, for the record I think this is despicable behavior on the part of the company. Unless you're being fired for cause (like stealing, punching somebody out or sexually harassing your coworkers), you should be allowed to gather your own things. And unless there are extenuating circumstances, your manager shouldn't even hover over you as you do it. 

But to the best of my knowledge (remember, I'm not a lawyer, nor do I play one on the Internet), it's perfectly legal for the company to require you to produce a list of items that belong to you so they can be retrieved. Now, as long as you were terminated as part of a layoff or because of sagging performance and not because you were a jerk, it's likely your direct supervisor feels terrible. Very few people like to fire employees. Your boss probably feels extremely guilty right now, so use that guilt to your advantage.

Explain to your boss that you have things in your desk that are personal, but that you can't remember everything. Ask him to go through your desk and separate out things that belong to you and provide the box to the HR staff, who can deliver it to you. Provide him with a list as a guide, just as you did in your email, so your former boss knows what he's looking for. Pictures -- obvious. Newspaper clippings? Not obvious. So if you want to keep something like that, identify it. You don't need to say, "Article from the Wall Street Journal dated June 16, 2007." But rather, "news clips, photographs, personal correspondence." Sometimes it's easier to identify what isn't yours. "The books and things in the filing cabinet all belong to the company, but everything else is mine."

The reality is that you may not get everything back. And that is unfair and annoying as all get out. I haven't even addressed any electronic data -- you'll likely have to kiss that goodbye. So for the future, here are some tips:

Your office is not a home away from home. Assume if you bring it in, it now belongs to the company. You should have originals of your pictures at home. Don't bring in your prize geraniums. Goldfish? Well, as long as you haven't bonded with it, it's probably OK.

Performance appraisals, complimentary emails and anything that would be in an employee file should be at home. Yes, HR will likely hold onto last year's performance appraisal for a certain amount of time (three years, generally), but most likely they aren't required to give you a copy. So don't throw yours out or stick it in a desk drawer. Take it home.

If you signed it, take it home. This encompasses non-compete agreements, relocation agreements, bonus plans and even certification that you've taken sexual harassment training. If you're trying to negotiate a severance package, the company probably isn't required to show you what you've agreed to in the past. You should have copies of all that stuff at home. (Again, I'm not an attorney, but I won't sign anything they won't let me keep a copy of. Ever.)

Personal email and contact lists should be maintained on your personal phone/computer. Networking is the key to the success of your job hunt. But if every contact you had was on that company-issued Blackberry that is now sitting on HR's desk, you'll have to track them down again. (This isn't that hard with LinkedIn, but it's a pain in the neck an difficult if your contacts aren't on that website.) Don't send your mother emails detailing her grandchild's first steps on your work email account. Do it on your personal account and then it's yours forever. (Email accounts are free and plentiful. No reason to use your work one for personal things.)

Be careful not to violate company policy. Who owns your contacts? It depends on your job and your signed documents. But if the company does, don't keep a back-up list on your home computer. They can come after you. Don't keep confidential work documents at home, either. Home is for home. Work is for work. 

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.

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