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Rule against document removal supports legit business need

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Firing,Human Resources

Does your organization have a rule against removing company documents from the workplace? If not, consider adding one.

Documents should remain on the premises, and allowing them to “walk” can spell big trouble. For example, employees may be tempted to remove and copy documents they think will aid a later lawsuit against the company.

To prevent what can amount to tampering with evidence (which could happen if documents “disappear” and never return), establish a clear rule against taking any company property off site without specific permission. You can extend the prohibition to forwarding electronic documents, too.

As the following case shows, it’s perfectly OK to enforce such a rule against an employee who is trying to build a harassment case. Employers can make the case that the rule is a legitimate business decision, not evidence of retaliation.

Recent case: Kelly Coolidge won a sexual harassment lawsuit against her employer. She had claimed that her supervisor made coarse propositions and fondled her without her consent. They both worked in a crime lab, which stored forensic evidence for use in criminal trials. After winning her suit, Coolidge went back to work. So did her supervisor.

But when the supervisor retired shortly thereafter, he allegedly left behind several unlabeled pornographic videos. Coolidge discovered these while cleaning out the evidence locker. One of the tapes appeared to depict an episode of necrophilia. The shocked Coolidge took the tapes to her lawyer, who made copies. She then returned them to the evidence locker.

But that wasn’t the end of Coolidge’s secreting away of office property. After Coolidge was reprimanded for not taking a blood sample during a rape investigation, she removed a page from a logbook describing how another employee allegedly failed to fingerprint the correct body in an active murder investigation. Her attorney copied that document too, and Coolidge then returned it.

Coolidge was fired for three rule violations—failing to take the blood sample and twice removing property from the premises. She sued for retaliation, but the 7th Circuit rejected her claims. It said firing an employee for removing property from the premises was a legitimate reason, and not evidence of retaliation. (Coolidge v. Consolidated City of Indianapolis and Marion County, No. 06-3587. 7th Cir., 2007)

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