Keeping a company laptop after leaving - It's not a great idea

If you are thinking of keeping a laptop after leaving the business you should be careful as it can land you in legal trouble. Companies lose around $50 billion a year as a result of employee theft and can pursue civil or criminal legal charges if you keep a company laptop after leaving because it is considered theft.

More than 50% of employees use their work laptops for at least some personal tasks such as checking email, reading the news, and shopping online. After using the same device for a few years you become accustomed to it. You get things set up the way you like them and install the software you need.

So when it comes to leaving the company it can be hard to part ways with your laptop, especially if it is high-end and expensive. If you work in tech it isn’t that big a deal because every tech company provides its staff with a laptop. But for other non-tech roles where you have been provided with a work laptop, it can be incredibly tempting to keep it when you leave the business.

Let’s take a look at why keeping your company's laptop without their permission isn’t a great idea. Then look at how to properly return a laptop after your resignation and the steps to properly clear your device.

Do you have to return a company laptop?

Person in a hoody sat at a table using a laptop

If you haven’t previously agreed to keep the laptop for free or buy it from the business then you must. A laptop is considered company property and a failure to give it back amounts to employee theft. It can land you with some legal issues, particularly if the laptop is expensive or new.

If you keep a company laptop after leaving and it has a value of under $1000 you can be charged with “petty theft” which is a misdemeanour and comes with a small fine or jail time. Anything over $1000 and you could be charged with “grand theft” which is a felony offence carrying a bigger fine and prison time.

Plenty of people have gotten lucky and can keep a company laptop after leaving. Just make sure you go through the right avenues before trying to keep yours.

Sensitive Data

A lot of companies insist on returning laptops after leaving because of company data. Many are cautious that your machine contains sensitive company information so they want the data removed first.

The device may also have proprietary company software that they don’t want accidentally leaked to the public. Or simply have applications which the business is paying for and they want to remove this cost going forward

Depreciation and age

When the devices are old, some businesses have no problem with you keeping them. It would cost them more to refurbish the device and make it useful, than for you to keep it. Also, businesses claim depreciation on all their assets, and a laptop has a five-year class life. So once this period is up employers may be more willing to let you keep computers and laptops once you leave.

Smaller companies also don’t have the processes in place to properly recycle and handle old laptops so they would rather let you keep them and pass the burden.

How to return a company laptop after your resignation

It is important to give back any equipment that a company has provided to you during your tenure there. When you work from an office the process is fairly straightforward as you can just bring everything in on your last day and leave it there.

Although, it can be a laborious process especially if you move jobs as often as most software engineers. To return a company laptop after you leave plus any other equipment you need to:

  1. Communicate your last day with the company
  2. Arrange a pickup date
  3. Clear your laptop
  4. Repackage your equipment
  5. Provide courier with your equipment

It may seem straightforward but plenty of people don’t communicate their official last day with people outside the direct team. It means that tasks like laptop returns can be left to the last minute.

When you work remotely the pickup date should be driven by the company's HR or IT department who will organise a courier. You should not be expected to pay for the return of your laptop or any other equipment. They should organise a pick up date and the company will reach out and pick a time that suits you.

You don’t have to clear your laptop before returning it but it is highly recommended, especially if you have spent a long time at the company. It is a multi-step process but you need to:

  • Copy any personal files or things you want to keep to a portable hard drive.
  • Delete any personal files on the laptop - think images, videos, and documents. Check in the Documents, Downloads, Music, Pictures, and Videos folders.
  • Remove any applications you have downloaded
  • Clear your browser cache. Here are some instructions for Google Chrome but they may differ for other browsers.
  • Remove personal accounts from your browser
  • Empty the recycling bin - any files you have deleted in the steps above will be here. Make sure to delete them permanently.

If you are thinking of keeping a company laptop after leaving you probably need to complete the above steps anyway. Plus you will have to do a fresh install of the operating system.

What can a company do if you don't return a laptop?

If you don’t return a company laptop and it is worth more than $1000 you can be charged with petty theft which incurs a small fine or jail time. With laptops worth more than $1000 you could be charged with grand theft which is a felony offence and carries longer jail time.

Companies also have the option of going the civil court case route which means you won’t have to go to jail but may end up with hefty court fees. Typically, if you lose the case you have to pay their fees, return the laptop, and potentially pay extra money.

Before it gets to either criminal or civil court you are likely to receive a Return of Company Property Letter which outlines what equipment the business is expecting back and the timeline you have to return it. Failure to comply will usually mean a few more letters are sent or someone will try and contact you.

Once the letters have been sent companies will usually contact local law enforcement and start the criminal and civil proceedings against you.

Deactivating your device

Another option that a lot of tech companies use is to remotely deactivate your laptop. Most have company software installed that allows them to take control of the device and push down certain group policies.

Others also have chips or other tracking devices in the machines that enable them to be deactivated. If you are tech savvy it may be possible to do a refresh install on the laptop but there is no guarantee that it will reactivate your device.

What do companies do with returned laptops?

Companies tend to recycle, reuse, repurpose, lease, sell, or donate returned laptops. The specific action they take will depend on the age and performance of the device.

Older laptops tend to be recycled or their parts repurposed, while newer laptops are reused by the next employee or returned to a leasing company. Some middle-aged devices end up being sold or given to charity to help those in need.

We covered what businesses do with old laptops in another article and it details the specifics of returned laptops too. Trying to keep your company laptop after you leave isn’t usually a great idea because businesses usually have plans for your device.

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