Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Some lessons in handling departing employees and their files


ESPN is reporting that football program files have gone missing from the University of West Virginia office of former coach Rich Rodriguez, who left West Virginia for Michigan. From espn.com:

West Virginia University said Tuesday it will investigate the disappearance of player and football program files found to be missing from the former office of ex-Mountaineers coach Rich Rodriguez.

West Virginia University said Tuesday it will investigate the disappearance of player and football program files found to be missing from the former office of ex-Mountaineers coach Rich Rodriguez.

Paperwork detailing every player on West Virginia's roster, as well as the program's activities over the past seven years, went missing between Rodriguez's resignation as coach to take over at Michigan and the team's return from the Fiesta Bowl, the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette reported....

After returning to work about a week ago, the staff at WVU's Puskar Center found that most of the files that had been stored in Rodriguez's office, as well as the players' strength and conditioning files in the weight room, were gone, the Gazette reported.

"It's unbelievable. Everything is gone, like it never existed," a source within the athletic department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the Gazette. "Good, bad or indifferent, we don't have a record of anything that has happened." ...

According to the source, the missing files include all of the players' personal files, which encompass contact information, scholarship money awarded, class attendance records and personal conduct records, the Gazette reported....

According to the report, multiple sources said several people in the Puskar Center reported seeing Rodriguez and at least one of his assistants, video coordinator Dusty Rutledge, in Rodriguez's private office shredding paperwork on Dec. 18 -- the day he returned from Ann Arbor after being named Michigan's new head coach. Those who say they witnessed the action said they either paid it no mind or did not know what was being destroyed, according to the report....

West Virginia and Rodriguez are in the midst of a messy legal battle over his departure from Morgantown. The university is trying to recover $4 million from Rodriguez for leaving with six years remaining on his contract. Rodriguez, in turn, said West Virginia breached the contract by not fulfilling all of its terms of the deal.

If Coach Rodriguez took the files, I certainly hope that his attorney is advising him to return them. I couldn't imagine that Coach would try to leverage these valuable documents into a settlement of his other legal issues with the university.

Intrigue aside, Rich Rodriguez's plight is a good learning exercise for employers and employees. Unless there is an agreement that states otherwise, what an employee creates during his or her employment is the property of the employer. The employee is working for the benefit of the employer, and is being paid for it. Accordingly, the employer, and not the employee, owns the files and documents. Because it is the employer's property, the employee has no right to take the property with him or her at the end of employment. These issues are the same whether we are talking about paper or electronic files.

Some take away points for everyone:

  • Make sure expectations are clear on the way in the door - handbooks, policy manuals, and employment agreements should clearly state that everything that is created during employment belongs to the company, and that it is expected to be left with the company at the end of employment.
  • Supervisors and managers need to be trained so that they do not make any statements contradictory to the policy upon which an employee could claim reliance.
  • As best as possible, monitor what employees take out of the company during their employment. Few jobs today are 9 - 5. More and more employees take work home, and some even telecommute. It becomes very difficult to keep tabs on where stuff is, and the more stuff taken out of the office or downloaded, the harder it will be to have it returned if an employee leaves. The good thing about e-mail and portable media is that at least they generally leave a trace that something was taken.
  • Reinforce the policy during an exit interview by reminding the employee of the expectation that nothing will leave the company with him or her, and that everything must be returned immediately.
  • When all else fails, a letter from a lawyer to a former employee and the new employer goes a long way to getting the documents returned.

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