Company websites are no longer novel. They are every bit as required for business operation as a telephone, computer or copier. Employers would be appalled at any employee who walked out after leaving employment with the telephone handset under arm or copier in tow. But, employers sometimes fail to provide the same level of thought or protection to a website, especially access to it after an employee leaves. Consider the following not-so-far-fetched hypothetical situation:
Joe, a computer whiz, designs the company’s website, populates its content, and controls the very limited access to others who are allowed to alter the site. This works well until Joe becomes disenchanted with the company and resigns. Before leaving however, Joe changes the password and access requirements to the website, effectively blocking out the rest of the Company personnel. The Company does not discover Joe’s moves until it tries to update the website to reflect an upcoming sale. When contacted, Joe says he will only provide access if the Company pays him the severance amount he wants.
Blackmail? Yes. Prohibited by Company policy? You hope so. But what is a Company to do?
Most companies by now have detailed policies indicating that it, and not any employee who works for it or on the website, owns all intellectual property rights to the website and its contents. But beyond ownership statements the Company has not provided for what to do in the event an employee such as Joe absconds with the ability to carry on after he leaves. In addition to Company policies about ownership of the intellectual property, consider taking the following steps:
- Have the employee acknowledge in writing that he or she will return all Company property and provide access to Company property upon departure. Specify that this includes access to electronic material such as a website.
- Require the departing employee to give a list of all passwords used to access Company equipment or property while employed. This does not necessarily include access to personal sites employee may have accessed while using Company property.
- Condition any type of separation benefit on the return of Company property, including providing access to electronic material or communication.
- If an employee refuses to return the property or provide access to it, seek an immediate injunction requiring its return or an action for “conversion,” an action alleging that the employee has properly converted Company property to his or her own use and is depriving the Company of its use. As the goal is to quickly regain the property, you must convince the court of why the employee must be immediately enjoined from continuing to withhold your property as opposed to the economic damages you will suffer.
Even though these steps may seem very basic, they are a quick and easy reminder of what can be done if an employee seeks to impede your business by holding hostage valuable Company property such as your website.