When Employees Turn Against You

Last Updated Apr 15, 2009 12:14 PM EDT

At the end of March, after 1,200 job cuts were announced at Gucci, employees held the head of the fashion house's parent company, Francois-Henri Pinault, captive in his car for an hour.

This tells us two things. First, fashionistas are not to be messed with.

Second, when the passion and drive you first employed someone for is turned against the business, it can be seriously damaging.

This doesn't have to involve a dramatic car incarceration. Those facing the threat of redundancy may be harming the business much more quietly.

A survey by security company Cyber-Ark Software found a large proportion of employees, nervous about potential layoffs, had already downloaded competitive corporate data just in case they needed it.

Some go as far as theft of money or property. UK regulator the Financial Services Authority has warned that the recession's likely to see a rise in employee and customer fraud. (The FSA's upcoming financial crime conference is likely to be heavily subscribed.)

So what's an employer to do? There are four key ways to protect yourself.

  1. Revisit employee contracts, including restricted covenants. According to Simon Fenton, a partner in employment law with law firm Thomas Eggar, your contracts should ensure employees can't leave and set up in competition within a certain period of time. This must be in protection of a legitimate business interest and can go no further and wider than necessary, or it will be deemed a restraint of business.
  2. Technical controls can prevent or record any sensitive data being copied. You can also invest in data loss prevention software. More drastic is to block the USB portals on each computer, but this sends out a particular message about corporate trust levels. Likewise,if you want to monitor email you must ensure your IT and email policies are clear on this point, or you could be in breach of the Human Rights Act and, again, in danger of creating a "Big Brother" culture.
  3. Ensure those whose jobs are under threat -- anyone involved in redundancy consultations -- don't have access to sensitive data. This may mean disabling passwords, or sending employees home. Be clear about why you are doing this and make sure treat everyone involved in the consultation equally, otherwise you risk an unfair dismissal case.
  4. Keep your eyes open for tell-tale signs. If an employee is spending longer in the office than usual -- staying later or coming in at weekends -- it could be a sign they are copying or stealing information or property. Sometimes, a refusal to take holiday may indicate they are trying to avoid detection. If they change their working patterns in any way -- including printing out documents they wouldn't normally print -- it's possible they are taking data out in any format they can.
These steps should protect you from subtle forms of employee retaliation. Unfortunately there's little you can do if they opt for more direct methods, aside from making sure you have a good book in your glove compartment.