How to leave a job with your personal tech intact

Today's job changers must figure out how to untangle personal information and unplug personal electronics from company property. And the lines aren't always clear

The ability to transition ethically and legally from one job to another has always been something of an art.

Now, in these days of personal gadgetry and social media mania, it's become infinitely more difficult moving from old employment to new. Today's job changers must figure out how to untangle personal information and unplug personal electronics from company property. And the lines aren't always clear.

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That personal email sent to your work account -- is that yours or the company's when it comes time to part? Those project notes you pounded out on your home keyboard one weekend -- are those ideas yours or your firm's? You may be asked to give back your company-issued smartphone, but can you keep the actual telephone number, the only way your spouse and kids know how to reach you?

Add to that questions around your use of social media -- if you managed to rack up 10,000 loyal Twitter followers by tweeting in connection with your company and position, whose followers are they? What if you set up a Facebook user group to discuss tech topics important to your work -- when you leave, are those groups now the province of your replacement?

"Company policy, the law, issues around intellectual property, social media, ethics, they're really not clear," says Miriam Reiss, Ph.D., a business and personal coach based in Los Angeles. "In most companies there's a very fuzzy social media policy that doesn't address what needs to be addressed. Or there's no social media policy at all."

In the face of such fuzziness, what's an IT employee to do when it comes time to depart? Computerworld checked in with high-tech job changers, lawyers and HR pros to learn how workers should best manage the process of separating the personal from the professional.

Their takeaway? The rules of the road depend on the company you work for and its policies, which can be all over the map. Read your employee manual carefully. Talk openly with your boss. And if you're still unsure, you might want to invest in a lawyer who specializes in this area before you make any employment switch.

My tweet, myself

Erica Driver, senior director of product marketing at Qlik Technologies Inc., has done her fair share of disentangling in the past few years. She left a position at Forrester Research Inc. to become an independent analyst before taking her current job at Qlik, which is headquartered in Radnor, Pa.

Driver, who works out of the company's Newton, Mass., office, has had the same Twitter account and many of the same followers since 2007, when she was still working at Forrester.

She considers those followers to be one of her assets in the marketplace. "Twitter is about connections, and what makes a person valuable to a company are those kinds of relationships. Companies want to have people with influence and contacts," she says, noting that those contacts could be seen as potential clients and customers.

Driver believes her various employers have no claim to her Twitter account or her followers.

True, she tweets about topics related to her work, but she does so in an account that's in her name. "Those are key points: Is the account in your name? Are you tweeting on behalf of the company or tweeting as yourself? That's very different as me tweeting as customer service at company X," Driver says.

(Like many companies at the time, Forrester didn't have a Twitter policy when she left, but issued new social media policies, particularly around blogging, after her departure, she says.)

Laying down the law

"What you're really raising is the question of how old-fashioned rules apply in the new world," says Jonathan Segal, a partner in the Employment, Labor, Benefits and Immigration Practice Group at Duane Morris LLP.

Standard rules say that what a worker creates in the course of employment is the employer's property, regardless of whether it's a paper document or the content of a blog or the extensive email list an employee has compiled on her smartphone.

Leaving? Do it legally

How you handle your highly wired work life when you're ready to leave one job for another can mean the difference between a graceful exit and one marred by legal wrangling. Employment experts say:

  • Don't use Facebook or any other social medium to invite former colleagues to join you at your new job -- this could get you in legal hot water, especially if you signed a non-solicitation agreement with your previous employer.
  • Don't re-use blogs that you wrote, even if on your personal time, that concern your previous employer or any work you did while there.
  • Consult your employee manual about which files you're allowed to take with you. Even removing photos of your kids after you've given notice could send up red flags.
  • Be scrupulous about keeping little, if any, personal data on your corporate-issued gear -- regularly delete that kind of info from your work machine, especially if you think you may soon be in the job market, voluntarily or otherwise.
  • Don't Tweet or post details about your departure. You could be endangering exit agreements or spreading the news to contacts who are about to become your new competitors.

"The general advice we give when people leave a company is you should leave everything behind. So you leave the contacts behind -- that means you take them off BlackBerrys, PDAs, smartphones," he says. "Contacts may be [employer property] if the employer has invested in those relationships, and that includes creating the technology and providing the employee the time for engaging in social networking."

In the best of all worlds, companies should have clear policies regarding these issues, and workers should maintain separate electronic devices for business and personal use.

That said, Segal also believes that workers need some wiggle room, and employers should be reasonable in meeting that need.

Segal acknowledges that the personal and professional have become so blurred -- even when such policies are in place -- that departing employees often do need to access and take information stored on company computers, and, conversely, that companies may feel the need to access personal devices in search of corporate data.

Workers should be able to take personal data such as digital photos or contact information for their kids' teachers. In many cases, Segal believes, they should also be allowed to print out or forward some professional material -- for instance, contact names to a user group -- provided they can argue that what they're taking isn't protected, proprietary or confidential to the firm.

The high-tech kill switch

Many employers already are protecting themselves, and using technology where possible to help. Companies can track and even block what files employees forward, print or copy, Segal and others say, to ensure that workers aren't making off with trade secrets, client lists and the like.

On the hardware side, companies can even disable devices remotely.

"Most companies that I know of that support smartphone use have enabled it with a feature that allows them to erase all data -- 'spike the phone' -- at their discretion, usually at termination," says Sean Ebner, regional vice president for Technisource, the IT services division for SFN Group Inc. "This means that the employee would lose pictures, contacts, emails, files, and so forth."

Some workers might find that draconian, but legal contracts like non-compete and non-solicitation agreements give companies the right to take such actions to protect their assets and interests, according to Segal and other experts.

That said, employers do recognize that the lines between personal and professional are blurred when gadgets are involved, and, as a result, many are trying to accommodate employees' needs when possible, Ebner says.

Allowing a departing worker to remove files from a company device, forward emails to a personal address or keep a cell phone number all depend on the way in which a person is separating from the organization. "If the firm feels threatened, very little flexibility is given. If the associate is leaving on great terms, flexibility is often the rule of the day," Ebner observes.

Here's your hat...

Norman Hollander, an IT worker based in Palms Springs, Calif., had a leave-taking that fell somewhere between those two extremes.

Hollander had worked for six years as a technology architect for CA Technologies, an IT management software company based in Islandia, NY, when he learned he would have to relocate to Pennsylvania -- a move he didn't want to make.

When he resigned, CA cut off his email -- a typical practice in corporate America these days -- without allowing him to create a response that would direct people to a new account. His work laptop went right back to the company, too. Luckily, he had kept personal copies of contact data and other files backed up, and in addition, the company allowed him to remove other personal information from the machine. His BlackBerry was his own, so he didn't need to relinquish the smartphone.

Of course, the loss of corporate email no longer leaves a person feeling completely cut off. He posted his new contact information on LinkedIn and Facebook (see Job hunting via social network) and had a colleague email co-workers a goodbye note with the contact data on his behalf.

Segal says it's best for employer and employee to be clear about what must stay and what can go.

For example, employers should have policies that require departing workers to remove all corporate information from their personal devices (some of Segal's clients actually require certification that this step gets done).

For their part, departing employees should be able to work with a company representative or third-party liaison to remove whatever personal material is on corporate devices.

Segal recommends the same level-headed approach when it comes to blogs and Twitter accounts. Ditto for contacts and information that employees acquire through professional activities.

"The best way to deal with it is to come out with reasonable policies in advance and then at time of termination be open. If there's not a clear legal answer, try to come up with a reasonable business solution, because the biggest problem I see is the lack of communication," he says.

Segal is not particularly optimistic every company can reach that goal. In fact, he expects the courts will eventually see lawsuits involving Facebook, Twitter and other tools that blur the lines between our professional and personal personas. That perhaps will be the truest sign that social media has become part of the corporate Zeitgeist.

Job hunting via social network

When Norman Hollander decided to leave his job at CA Technologies rather than move out of state, one of his first steps was to update his Facebook and LinkedIn pages.

He saw an immediate response.

"I got hundreds of emails asking where I was going and saying they had ideas on where I should look," he says, adding that he also leveraged his accounts with online professional groups to cultivate job leads.

Hollander says he was careful about what he posted, making sure his comments accurately reflected the goodwill that existed between him and his former colleagues at CA. In fact, he had co-workers and managers write recommendations to post on LinkedIn -- something that helped him in his job search, he says.

Now at IBM as a consulting IT specialist, Hollander says he has kept many of his former colleagues as LinkedIn contacts, thinking he could pay back all the help he received. At the same time, he realized that some contacts important for his old job wouldn't be as relevant moving forward.

Separately, he says, the job change felt like a good time to make a stricter delineation on Facebook between work-related contacts and personal ones. So he discreetly defriended some Facebook contacts who weren't really friends.

Hollander is on the right track, says John Reed, executive director of IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology of Menlo Park, Calif. As a professional, you should always be selective about your connections and resist the urge to connect digitally with every single co-worker you're leaving behind.

Reed recommends limiting your business network to those whose own professional sphere overlaps with yours -- either by industry or discipline. "As your career develops, the relevance of your network will change, and you want to keep your list of contacts relevant," he says.

Why not just keep the old contacts hanging around? You can be judged by the company you keep online. Do you really want to connect with past colleagues you barely know if you can't vouch for their work reputation? He says it's better to keep social acquaintances and friends, even work buddies, as Facebook friends rather than LinkedIn contacts.

Finally, reminds Sean Ebner, regional vice president for IT services provider Technisource, "It's best to leave an organization quietly and with everything positive. That post on Facebook saying 'It's a great day -- I just quit my job!' is going to hurt people's feelings." And possibly your reputation.

This story, "How to leave a job with your personal tech intact" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.