If you own a business and are getting used to having remote employees due to the coronavirus, there's one new phenomenon that is hard to find peace with.
Specifically, employees who are leaving your company, voluntarily or otherwise, may be hanging on to the company-owned laptops they are supposed to return back to you.
By our estimates, just over 9 million company laptops will need to be returned to United States employers this year, and it's harder than it used to be to get those laptops back.
Normally, the departing employee would be in the office on their last day, packing up their personal belongings and returning their laptop before they walked out the door for the last time.
Now, you've lost that element of control. They are at their home, with your laptop, and they've got no reason, and no desire, to go back to the office.
What's the best way to increase your odds of getting that laptop back?
Holding Back the Final Paycheck Is Not an Option
It's tempting to tell your terminating remote employee that they won't get their final paycheck unless and until you get your company-issued laptop back.
In most states, there are laws that specifically prevent employers from holding back on giving an employee that last paycheck, for any reason whatsoever.
If you don't give the employee that last paycheck, they can sue you, and they will win. They will win in court even if they still don't give you the laptop back.
Letting the Employee Keep the Laptop
If you're a kind employer, it can be tempting to allow a beloved employee to keep their laptop. After all, if they were subject to a short-notice Covid layoff, times are tough for them, they may not own their own computer, and they need a computer to work on their resume and get those job applications out.
But that computer has a lot of sensitive data on it. If you're going to give it away, you should still get it back, wipe the drive, do a clean install on it, and then and only then give it to your departing employee.
I've done this once myself, for an employee who had been with us for around seven years. But it's a slippery slope. If you do it for one employee, word will get out and soon everyone will be asking to keep their laptop.
It's just not a good idea, even if it's an old laptop.
Calling the Cops
If the employee is supposed to return the laptop and doesn't, it's essentially a theft.
You can't call a bill collector on them. You usually can't file a civil lawsuit against them. You can only call the cops on them.
To place the criminal charges against them, call the local police where they live, as well as the local police where the company office is located. The cops will let you know how they will handle it.
But be careful. Criminal charges will be brought by the state's attorney, not by you. Even if you decide to forgive the employee, the wheels of justice (or injustice, as if often the case) will be in motion.
A conviction will not only damage your employee's reputation, it could lead to fines and jail or prison time. Do you really want to do that to your former employee?
While it can be tempting to say you may press criminal charges if computer equipment is not returned, if only to encourage employees to give back their laptops, very few business owners actually have the stomach to send the police out to arrest a former employee, just for a laptop.
The Best Way to Handle It
A much better way to handle this is by including something along these lines in your Employee Handbook, as well as getting the employee to sign binding paperwork to this effect when they receive their laptop:
I recognize that any company-issued computer equipment is owned by the company and must be returned to the company within 48 hours upon the termination of my employment for any reason. In the event that I keep any company-owned computer equipment and do not return it, I hereby acknowledge that this is a violation of the HR policy, that the company may reduce any bonus or severance payments to cover the equipment replacement costs, and in lieu of, or in addition to such reductions, may send me an invoice to cover any outstanding replacement costs and fees, which I hereby agree to accept and pay.
You'll want to have an attorney review this to make sure it's legal in your state.
The best part of it is that you can send an invoice to the employee for the replacement costs of the misappropriated laptop.
The employee will have contractually agree to pay the invoice, so when they don't you can now move forward with the debt collector. Even just threatening collection will often get the laptop returned to you. If not, my experience is that debt collectors are very good at getting that money, although they will typically keep 30% of whatever they collect.
Still, it's better than calling the cops and pressing criminal charges.
You should also make it as easy as possible for the employee to ship the laptop back to you. For example, send them a box with a pre-paid shipping waybill and directions to the nearest shipper (e.g. FedEx or UPS). The goal is to remove any barriers that will prevent the employee from returning the laptop.
It's unfortunate that things do get ugly like this with some ex-employees, even in companies that have great cultures and treat employees well.
The problem seems to be getting more common in the Covid era, so if you don't have a policy like the one above, it's time to get busy and get one in place.
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