Q. We terminated an employee after we caught him downloading software and movies onto his own CDs and DVDs. After he left, we found discs that contained copied movies in his desk. Now he's asking for his belongings back. Are we required to return the discs? —D.V.
A. The general rule is that, after a termination, employers must return all personal property to employees. But your question asks if any exceptions exist to this general rule. What if, for example, you discovered illegal drugs in the ex-employee's desk? In that case, you shouldn't return the property; you should call the police immediately.
But since copying software and movies isn't as severe, yours is more of an ethical issue than a legal question. No employment law requires you to contact legal authorities or the software manufacturer in such a case. So, you'd need to decide if you want to put your company in the middle of a trademark dispute between a software manufacturer and the former employee. It's a judgment call, but the least messy thing to do is return the discs to the employee.