Can an employee refuse to return company property?

Court decides over former employee's possession of employer's computer

Can an employee refuse to return company property?

The Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFCOA) has recently decided over the case of an employee who wanted to keep her employer’s computer.

Learn how HR could respond to employees’ possessions of company property and the legal basis that would support an employer’s claim to have it returned.

The employee worked for a large computer manufacturer based in Australia and New Zealand. In an original application to the Fair Work Commission (FWC), the employee said she was harassed and bullied.

The case has made its way to the FCFCOA because the work computer was still in the employee’s possession, but the company wanted it to be returned to the workplace.

The parties’ arguments

The employee resisted its return, saying that there is material on the computer that is “personal to her,” and she needs it “to pursue her legal action against the company.”

The parties have been unable to come up with a solution that would ensure the return of the computer to the employer and allow the employee to identify, copy, and delete her personal material stored on the computer.

The court’s decision

The court said it is “satisfied that the computer, the subject of this dispute, does belong to the company,” noting that the employer is “lawfully entitled to demand its return.”

The court further highlighted that it is the company’s property, despite the employee’s claim that she has been using it for personal reasons, especially in her case against the employer. Therefore, the court said it was “not unreasonable” for the company to take it back.

Takeaways for HR leaders

A dispute with an employee is already difficult to navigate, but HR should still not hesitate to claim properties in possession of an aggrieved employee.

The law says when ownership is clear and undeniable, the employer has the right to demand the return of its valuables.

In this case, the legal representatives of both parties couldn’t settle on a matter to tackle the issue of possession of a company computer. As a result, the issue escalated and reached the court’s steps, much to the latter’s “concern” that it had already developed into an “acrimonious dispute.” The court even commented that it “actually expects much better from both sides.”

Thus, in a similar situation, the case reminds HR leaders to exert all means to reach an amicable settlement and reach the best process of turning over any company property held by an aggrieved employee. If it could be avoided, both parties must be earnest in finding a solution outside the courtroom.

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