One of the most awkward issues to address when a worker separates from employment is the exchange of property belonging to the employee and the employer. This is especially true when the separation is involuntary and the employee has not had a chance to pack up their personal property or collect the employer’s property in his or her possession. Sometimes this even turns into a situation reminiscent of a bad romantic break up, with the parties contesting what belongs to whom and holding onto the belongings of the other out of spite(“I’m keeping those books; you won’t use them anyway” or “those are copies of my work; I’m taking them with me”).
And then there’s the cell phone. So many employers either purchase or reimburse employees for their cell phone because constant accessibility is not even considered a convenience anymore; it’s a necessity. On top of that, many employers allow their employees to use their work phones as their personal phones as well. It’s a messy situation, then, when the employee wants to keep the cell phone number. Obviously, both parties want the continuity of maintaining the same phone number.
The answer is actually simple. If the employer established the account, even if the device belongs to the employee, then the employer “owns” the number. Conversely, if the employee established the account, even if he or she was using an employer owned device, then the employee “owns” the phone number. Obviously, to ensure continuity, employers should always establish the phone account; otherwise they risk a number of their clients or customers calling a possibly disgruntled former employee!
As to other property, as we would tell our friends during bad break ups, it’s mostly only stuff. Obviously, you want to retrieve employee identification, keys, devices, tools, and other things of real value or that are confidential in nature. Employers can usually collect most of these items right after the discussion about separation. Otherwise, don’t sweat over those three polo shirts with the employer’s logo on them. You’re not going to use them anyway. And if the employee walks out with a plant that you suspect was bought by the company -- who really cares if it’s of minimal value.
The one thing that employers must avoid is withholding the employee’s final pay check or a portion thereof until all of the company property is returned. That’s a violation of the Wage Payment and Collection Act which not only requires payment of final compensation on the next pay date after separation of employment, but also prohibits deductions or withholdings from pay that are not required by law or authorized by the employee. While holding up that last pay check in exchange for return of property may seem like powerful leverage to ensure return of property, it violates the law. If the former employee won’t return the employer’s property after a demand is made and a reasonable amount of time is given to comply, the employer can always file a police report or a civil action against the individual. When you have done everything else correctly in the employment relationship, don’t let frustration lead you into a lawsuit.