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Respect Your Employer’s Trade Secrets

By Peter Varhol

Every once in a while a case comes to light in the news about an employee, usually a technical professional, who leaves a company and joins another with a briefcase full of sensitive documents or USB drives of files. When the media has gotten wind, it usually means that the former employee has tried to leverage the documents into a payoff from a new employer or blackmail from their previous employer.

Most recently, a Ford product engineer was accused of taking thousands of Ford specs and test procedures to prospective employers in China, and using them to get two separate jobs.

But there are many cases where it happens and yet doesn’t make the news. In such cases the documents aren’t blatantly used to make large sums of money. But I bet many of us have left an employer with a few things we shouldn’t from our hard disk, a few things from our file folders, and some stuff from the network drive.

In just about every case, we don’t intend to be malicious about it. After all, if we’re interviewing for a new job, we like to provide concrete evidence of the work we’ve done. In fact, if you handle it properly, you might be able to get both a job and a bump in salary or responsibility based on your ability to show some inside intelligence on your previous employer.

Guess what. You really don’t need that stuff. You should be able to talk of your past accomplishments at a level of detail that should convince any prospective employer of your understanding of the technology to do the job. Pulling out documents to demonstrate your knowledge or level of access isn’t going to help gain employment.

And you don’t want to do that. You might be opening the door to an invitation to share information, even as a condition of a job offer. And that will take you down a slippery slope. Worse yet, you could be giving your new or prospective employer a reason to call the authorities and set up a sting to catch you trading trade secrets for employment or money. Even if that’s not your original intention, it can appear to be to your employer and the authorities.

In all likelihood, your motives are not nearly as nefarious as those that make the news. You might be trying to back up certain files, not trusting the backup mechanisms in your office. Or you may want to do work at home, either under the press of deadlines, it’s a better work environment, or yours is a more powerful computer. It is easy to put files on a USB flash drive from whatever virtual location you might have access to. And absent of any national security implications, you should not be prevented from doing so.

While it’s not wrong to do this (in many cases the files might not even have any trade significance), if and when you leave, you have a corresponding obligation to destroy any files or other data that might be in your possession. Regardless of whether they represent trade secrets. That’s not your call.

When you leave an employer, don’t stop at cleaning out your desk and returning papers to your manager. Also look at any CDs/DVDs you might have, at files on your home computer, and at your USB drives to identify and delete any files to which your employer can claim ownership. It might seem overly cautious, even paranoid, but appearances can often get you into trouble. Don’t let it happen to you.

About Peter Varhol

Contributing Editor Peter Varhol covers the HPC and IT beat for Digital Engineering. His expertise is software development, math systems, and systems management. You can reach him at DE-Editors@digitaleng.news.