Employers: the fine print

My ears perked up when I heard that the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing a case that dealt with individual rights to privacy at work. Specifically, the case is addressing the use of company communication channels and personal texts.

One thing that always surprises me is how little most people know about the “terms and conditions” at their workplace. Sure, the legal department spent a lot of time putting that nifty document together, but most of us never read the fine print. We assume that everything will be fine, sign and date the acknowledgment, and then forget that any such document exists.

Depending on what you do – and what, if anything, you create – that document is far more than an appendix to your company’s employee handbook.

What should you be looking for?

INTERNET USE POLICIES: At least a half-dozen people I know have lost their jobs because they didn’t meet the guidelines of their company’s Internet usage policy. Make sure you’ve read yours.

A good rule of thumb: Minimize your access to a few minutes, a few times a day. Don’t access personal, Web-based email at work (many workplaces block those programs). And if it’s something you wouldn’t check out around a spouse at home – gambling, message boards, or porn – it follows that you shouldn’t check it out at work.

Sounds like a given, but you’d be surprised how many people think they won’t get caught. (And no, clearing your cookies doesn’t make it all go away.)

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY: If you have a legal agreement with your company about something you’re creating as a member of their team, it’s important to read it very, VERY carefully and ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you own any part of what you create?
  • Will you receive any payment beyond your salary (or the initial payment) if your creation is used multiple times or generates a steady stream of profits?
  • Will your name always be clearly and prominently attached to what you’ve created?

In most cases, your employer has outlined very restrictive terms about what their rights are and what you can lay claim to. Most companies have intellectual property clauses that are designed to give them full rights to what you create while under their umbrella.

What you should negotiate for: clear credit as the creator of the work.

I learned this the hard way after a former employer removed my name from everything I’d ever written for them (after they’d laid me off, naturally). To add insult to injury, they’ve also been re-posting the work in recent months as new content.

I don’t have any issues with them re-posting the articles and blog entries, and I don’t expect any additional compensation for what I created. But I’m at a loss to understand why my byline was removed. For a writer, bylines are EVERYTHING. The lack of a byline on my written work (especially the work posted online) severely impacted my ability to highlight my experience when I was looking for a new job.

Lesson learned: Make sure you know where the boundaries are, and what might happen if those boundaries shift – or give way.


  1. Hello, Patrick! Just wanted to let you know that I found you after you posted a comment on Punk Rock HR. I enjoyed this post, but as a lawyer I just want to clarify your statement about intellectual property.

    If the work is prepared by an employee in the scope of their employment, then the work is considered a “work for hire” under US law, and the author of the work is NOT the person who actually wrote the words (or drew the picture, etc.), but the employer. It is also sometimes called “corporate authorship”. Your former company removed your byline because those words were legally written by the company, not you.

    Hard pill to swallow, I know. But this particular issue isn’t about fine print. Employers have this legal right if there is NO print. I would submit that any employee who wants to retain any intellectual property rights over their specific creations will have to negotiate a contract (license) to that effect up front.

    The general idea is great, though – KNOW THE RULES. 🙂

    Thanks, Joan! I don’t disagree with anything you said and I thought I was saying essentially the same thing. Thanks for saying it better than I did.

    I did understand all of these legal points when I signed on to write for my former employer. Removing my name was their right, but I still don’t see how the company as an entity benefits from that. I’m sure it’s purely business, but it’s challenging not to take an action like that and not take it personally. It’s had an effect as if I never worked for the company at all, and has had a devastating effect on me and my career as a writer.

    Thanks again – I really appreciated hearing more about the legal side of this!

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