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Post-Pink-Slip Protocols

Q: When someone is terminated over the phone and told to call the company later to arrange to pick up his or her belongings, can the employer dictate when the employee comes by, or does the employee have the right to do this anytime?

-- V.B., Texas

A: Before we answer your question, firing someone over the phone is tacky. But sadly, some employers haven't shown much class when it comes to letting people go. They've used FedEx and even e-mail to deliver the bad news. Employees deserve to hear from their manager -- in person -- that they're being canned, and why. A company that handles layoffs in the way you describe may not do the best job of dealing with the issue you raise, either.

Legal experts say once you're terminated, you (I'll assume you're the someone in question) can't drop by the office just any old time to collect your belongings -- unless, of course, your employer says it's O.K. The family photos, antique paperweight, and Montblanc pen set may be yours, "but if you come in whenever you want after you're fired, technically you're a trespasser," says employment attorney Louis DiLorenzo, who heads the labor department at management lawyers Bond, Schoeneck & King in Syracuse, N.Y.

SAFETY ISSUES. It's true that if the company makes you wait a while, you could sue for the days you were deprived of the use of your articles, DiLorenzo says. But, he adds, your case isn't likely to go very far. Chances are that you'll get your gear back in short order, anyway.

Naturally, it's hard not to feel hurt after being locked out. But companies may have good reasons for such policies. "It can be an issue of workplace safety if a disgruntled ex-employee could just walk in," says Janis Eggleston, a senior staff attorney at the National Employment Lawyers Assn., a San Francisco-based specialty bar association for lawyers who represent workers in employment- and civil-rights cases. Employees laid off in the past at your company may have walked off with company laptops or other property.

Amelia Thornton, chief administrative officer at Sunnyvale, Calif., software firm Hyperion, says an employee may also be asked to come back on a certain date simply because a company has scheduled outplacement services or discussions of severance packages that day.

CACHE CLEARANCE. You can always ask your employer if you can come in at a specific time that suits you, says Thornton, whose company laid off about 10% of its workforce, around 200 people, last year. "It's highly appropriate to ask for reasonable accommodation," she adds.

Another issue to consider is e-mail. These days, lots of employees use their employer's e-mail and computer systems for personal reasons. Many companies allow this, within limits. You may have e-mail on your work computer that you never bothered to print out that contain personal information you now want to take with you.

Odd as it sounds, an employer isn't required to give you access to personal messages that are stored on your computer at work, DiLorenzo says. Nor are you entitled to personal messages that you may have printed out and left at the office. That's because you used your company's computer and e-mail system, and even may have signed a consent form allowing your employer to monitor your use. It would be hard to argue that these messages were your property, DiLorenzo says.

STILL IN TRANSIT. Unopened e-mail is more of a gray area, but explaining why would take a separate legal treatise. Basically, a message that hasn't been opened is technically still in transmission. Federal and state laws prohibit another party from "intercepting" or opening messages in transmission, unless of course you've given your employer consent to monitor e-mail.

The good news, DiLorenzo says, is that many companies let ex-employees save or print out e-mail they need. Some companies download it and provide the former employee with the disk, he says. Others may allow employees to pull e-mail off their computer after disabling the computer's message-sending capability. "We don't want former employees sending diatribes to 5,000 people," DiLorenzo says.

Nor do employers want ex-workers copying things like customer lists or other intellectual property. "Most companies only allow employees limited access to whatever is theirs," says Eggleston. Remember, too, that if you're a sales exec who developed killer contacts, it doesn't mean those names and numbers necessarily belong to you (though, of course, if you know these contacts well, you may have no need for the info that's stored on them at work).

KNOW BEFORE SIGNING. "You created something while you were working for the company," says DiLorenzo. "That was part of your job. It all belongs to the company." And depending on the nature of your work, you may have signed nondisclosure and noncompete agreements that will circumscribe what you do when you leave your job.

A noncompete agreement can restrict your ability to immediately go work for a competitor and can put other limitations on your professional moves for a set, usually short, period of time. It's still enforceable if you've been laid off, vs. if you've decided to quit on your own, DiLorenzo says. But courts tend to look more favorably on your case when you've been terminated, he adds. In any case, make sure you understand these agreements if you have to sign any.

The best thing you can do when faced with a layoff is to ask questions and know your rights, says Thornton. It's in a company's best interest for employees to leave on as positive a note as possible, she adds. "You never know if an employee could end up being a customer or goes to work for a partner of the company. It's a small world." And people will remember forever the manner in which they were let go. By Eric Wahlgren in New York

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