How workers use and abuse company computers

You think your colleagues are bad? See how one company's employees mistreat their computer equipment

My first position in the tech profession was fixing computers at a largish company. During that first year, I quickly learned about the various ways users understand -- and, more importantly, treat -- the computers assigned to them.

For instance, I realized we employed two types of people at my company: people hired for their computer skills, and those hired for skills that use computers while doing their job. The former group often kept their computers well maintained, although there was a lot of "customization" going on -- but that's another set of stories. The latter comprised the bulk, if not the entirety, of our work because so often they didn't have any idea about how to best care for their hardware or software.

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"Wallace" called the IT department for the third or so time that week to say that his laptop was acting up again, so I agreed to come up and see him. He said the laptop was running poorly, which I confirmed.

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Since our other attempts to fix his computer problems that week hadn't worked, I went back to my office to call the warrantor. I told the tech who was on the line the serial number and began to mention the various issues Wallace was having with his laptop.

When the tech found the case file, he said, "Did he tell you about the refrigerator?" Concealing my surprise that a user called the company directly instead of working through our department, I said, "I'll get back to you" and hung up.

I went back to Wallace and asked him, "Did you put this laptop in a refrigerator?"

Wallace said, "Yes! It was running hot and I tried to cool it down."

Since this incident, I have worked with people who have treated their computer equipment poorly. For instance, one user lost a laptop due to theft (leaving it in a car seat in broad daylight in a mall), and another checked it as piece of luggage (that fellow actually worked in the tech department and should have known better).

But since that day, I have never had someone actually put a piece of sensitive electrical equipment in a refrigerated environment and then actually tell the manufacturer what was done. Users rarely tell even their tech admins what really happened, such as the woman who spilled coffee on her laptop and lied about it to me, even though, when I managed to pull out the battery, I saw and smelled the coffee-shaped outline of the keyboard on the battery's silver surface. She just went silent.

The somewhat strange postscript to this incident is that even though Wallace's manager knew what he did, the company gave him a brand-new machine. To his credit, it never ended up in the 'fridge. Maybe a confab with his boss taught him something about laptop care.

It was around then that I realized many users take little responsibility for hardware they don't purchase themselves. Another lesson I learned was that it's best to not directly accuse users of bad treatment of their machines, even though they are the sole users. I developed a phraseology that works well, particularly with users who are upper managers: "Someone did ____ to this machine.  I'm not saying it was you ..."

This story, "How workers use and abuse company computers," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more crazy-but-true stories in the anonymous Off the Record blog at InfoWorld.com.

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