Negotiating with former employer after being laid off
April 30, 2014 12:31 PM   Subscribe

I'm a young software engineer in SF, recently laid off, trying to keep my old company laptop, and unsure if this is reasonable.

I was laid off about two weeks ago - the company realized that it was spending too much money, given how much money it was likely to raise. Everyone but the founders were laid off. We were previously told that there was going to be a 'keep the lights on' fund that would keep everyone employed until the end of summer. They did not follow through with that.

During the 'you all no longer have jobs' conversation, I asked if I could keep my company laptop. I was given a 'yes'.

Yesterday, my old boss texted me, saying that they actually still needed my laptop, saying that one of the founders was using his personal laptop, and it was really slow. I responded that I was confused, as I thought that they had told me I could keep it. He responded that they said it was a 'possibility', but it looks like it wasn't doable. He and I have different recollections of how that conversation went.

I'm upset, and I want to keep this laptop. But I also don't want to burn any bridges, and I'm not even sure if my claims are reasonable. On a personal level, I still like most of the founders, and don't want to be a jerk here. But if I do have reasonable claims, I'm not sure how to go about this so that I can keep the laptop.

I think more than anything else, this interaction just mirrors the one where I lost my job - where this company told us that we'd be getting something (in that case, a continued place to work, now, a laptop) and they didn't follow through on it. It's frustrating.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (35 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Just my opinion, but if they bought the laptop, it's theirs. You have no right to it, regardless of what they told you. Sorry.
posted by cnc at 12:39 PM on April 30, 2014 [23 favorites]

I am sympathetic to your frustration here, but I think you are in for a lot of trouble and drama if you try to keep the laptop.

It's not standard practice for employees to keep company-issued computers upon being laid off. In this case, they agreed to let you keep it anyway—but if they're now denying having done so, and you have no way to prove otherwise (nothing in writing or any record of the conversation), I think you're pretty SOL.

It's shitty of them to do this, absolutely, and I'm sure your old boss knows damned well what he said, and is just regretting having said it. But if they wanted to call the police about this, and they can prove that the laptop was once theirs (because they have receipts or invoices), and you can't prove that they ever gave it to you, it could get really ugly for you.
posted by enn at 12:39 PM on April 30, 2014 [14 favorites]

Well, if you didn't care about burning bridges, I'd say just keep it and stop responding to them. You asked, they said yes. End of story. Anything that comes after that is just them asking you for a favor, which you don't owe them.

But since you don't want to be a jerk, and the laptop was purchased by the company, and presumably registered in its name as well -- I'd backup all your personal files (if any), restore it to factory-new condition if possible, and return it. A laptop is really not worth the hassle to your time and mental energy.

Despite liking the founders on a personal level, you've seen that the business either isn't viable or isn't being run properly. If they don't even have the money to buy a laptop for one of the founders, clearly there is a problem. Cut professional ties as quickly and nicely as you can - you don't want to continue being associated with a sinking ship.
posted by trivia genius at 12:40 PM on April 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

i understand your frustrations. being laid off sucks. i've been through it before, and it stings like hell.

however, the laptop is still the property of the company, unless you have it in writing. if you truly don't want to burn any bridges, back up anything you can off of it, go get yourself a cheap (probably used) laptop, and move on.
posted by koroshiya at 12:40 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

It sucks but I don't see where you have any recourse here. The laptop is company property and they're allowed to change their minds about it, especially if you don't have it in writing that they told you you could have it.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 12:41 PM on April 30, 2014

wipe it, nuke it, give it back.
posted by k5.user at 12:42 PM on April 30, 2014 [9 favorites]

It sounds like the laptop still belongs to the company. But you might want to call a lawyer referral service and run the whole thing by the company, along with your contract. Just so you make sure your employment insurance or whatever is in order. Then maybe you can buy a laptop.

I'm sorry about your job. That sucks.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 12:42 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've never heard of being able to keep the laptop. It's insult to injury but you should graciously give it back.

Be sure to wipe it of all of your personal files and browser history. I'm sure that didn't need to be said, but I'm saying it anyway.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:42 PM on April 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

I was able to keep a laptop once. So it does happen. But I agree with others that you _probably_ don't have any real recourse and probably should just return it. Thats not so much a statement of legal rights (to which I have little knowledge) but practicality.
posted by wildcrdj at 12:45 PM on April 30, 2014

the laptop is now your property after the "yes", and you reasonably relied on the "yes" to put your own personal business on it. if you give it back to them, they will have access to your secrets, and there is time and trouble in wiping it first. you aren't burning any bridges, they burned the bridge when they reneged on their promise of a job through summer, and now they are trying to renege on a gift. if they want it that damn much, they should offer to buy it from you.
posted by bruce at 12:45 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you keep the laptop, this could cost you future job opportunities. Your boss will tell future employers during reference checks, "X insisted on keeping the company's laptop after being asked to give it back." This is enough of a red flag that future employers may balk and decide to offer the job to another candidate.

I know that you feel repeatedly screwed over by this company. But you need to just move on. Do not commit what could be construed in the eyes of your old boss as theft.

The best companies do reference checks before hiring. How bad are you going to feel in a few weeks when you get through all the interviews for your dream job, are told that they need to do reference checks "mostly as a formality", but then don't hear back for a few days and then receive a mysteriously cold email that you're not getting the job after all?
posted by cheesecake at 1:01 PM on April 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Were there any other people around when you asked and they said yes?
posted by rhizome at 1:03 PM on April 30, 2014

I think you need to give it back. An unwitnessed, contested conversation doesn't seem to be a strong basis for your claim. The truth of what was said isn't necessarily relevant.

You should remember the business and people involved, and behave accordingly in the future.

Also, you have skillz, and you can get a machine "good enough" to stay current or work on projects until your next job for a few hundred bucks. You don't *need* this machine unless you're way closer to starving than I think you are.
posted by jsturgill at 1:03 PM on April 30, 2014

You do not own this laptop.

Nothing good will come from keeping it under these circumstances.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:09 PM on April 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

The wise decision is probably to give it back, but just to counter some of the other folks (and obviously, this depends on the laptop), I've had jobs where I could keep the laptop, as did my father while I was growing up, which is how I ended up with my first laptops to begin with.

In all of those cases, though, I'll mention that the laptops had already been replaced by new generations, meaning that, like, it was more that no one was asking after the old 486 Thinkpad brick when the rest of the company was on their second generation of Pentiums. (Pentia?) That doesn't sound like it's true here.

Discretion can be the better part of valor, and while you might end up being able to keep the laptop if you fought, it's probably not going to be worth your time or the longterm cost of that decision.
posted by klangklangston at 1:14 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ask if you can pay for it (propose something reasonable but less than new). If they still say no, just give it back.
posted by adorap0621 at 1:21 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm assuming this is all recent? If you were laid off a year ago and just now they want it back... that's different.

Otherwise just give it back. It would be funny if you installed Windows 95 on it though first :P (don't do that)
posted by jjmoney at 1:22 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

My dad got to keep some laptops from jobs while I was growing up, but as said upthread--they were shitty old laptops no one wanted and it was a different time back in the 90s! Nowadays I think it's pretty much standard for the laptop to go back to the company. I start a new job soon and it never even occurred to me to ask to keep the MacBook Pro from the job I'm leaving. Maybe I should have since they said "but you have a laptop" when I asked for a raise!

Anyway, give it back, get a cheapo one for $300 and deduct it from your taxes as a business expense, if it is indeed one.
posted by masquesoporfavor at 1:24 PM on April 30, 2014

Also, have you already signed termination paperwork? If so, check to see what it says, if anything, about returning stuff.
posted by rhizome at 1:31 PM on April 30, 2014

Being laid off sucks, and best of luck in your job search.

That said, if they bought the laptop, or even reimbursed you for the cost when you bought it, it's their property, and they get to keep it. A verbal 'yes' is worthless. Unless you somehow got it IN WRITING that you get to keep the laptop, you have to give it back.

There's an old adage that verbal agreements are worth the paper they're written on.
posted by tckma at 1:32 PM on April 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

You probably already know this, but it's worth considering too the extent to which word about a thing like this can spread across informal gossip networks between people who make hiring decisions in the SV/SF tech complex. You probably wouldn't get universally blacklisted or anything, but it could come back to bite you in the ass.
posted by invitapriore at 1:41 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was able to keep a laptop once when a place I was working at was going down in flames. There was very explicit paperwork about it though.

Might be worth asking about buying it from them to spare you the annoyance of getting a new one set up. I wouldn't be hopeful though. Sounds like there's not a lot of cash around for your former place of employment. When that happens having the object in hand is worth more than cash--other people can look at that cash and come up with reasons why it's needed elsewhere.

If you do end up having to get a new one, try to have a few days of overlap between them. Transferring files is the worst and is way easier to do if you can hardwire the two things together and move files that way.
posted by beep-bop-robot at 1:43 PM on April 30, 2014

Would you take your desk? Your chair? Company property, just like the laptop.
posted by tommasz at 1:52 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Been here. Not worth the fight or the hassle.

Buy an external drive and clone the laptop. Give it back to them after running dban on it. They'll have the original disks to put Windows (or whatever) back on it.

Buy yourself a laptop (a better one than this one), and use whatever migration tools you need to to put your stuff on your new laptop.
posted by Wild_Eep at 2:00 PM on April 30, 2014

"There's an adage that verbal agreements are worth the paper they're written on."

that's true for some things:

-contracts for the transfer of an interest in real estate.
-a contract that, by its terms, cannot be performed within one year.
-a contract to marry.
-a contract to make a bequest in a will.
-contracts for the sale of goods over $500.

as always, take counsel from an active, practicing lawyer in your area. i went inactive in 1995.
posted by bruce at 2:00 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Unless you have documentation of the permission given to you to keep the laptop, it's really your word against theirs.

At the very this has the potential to be drama-heavy AND burn bridges. Agreeing with pretty much everyone above: return the laptop.
posted by stubbehtail at 2:01 PM on April 30, 2014

It's not worth fighting this if you don't have documentation that specifically states that the laptop is part of your severance package. Yes, it's a jerk move on their part, but without paperwork backing up their promise to you, this is a lost cause.
posted by quince at 2:46 PM on April 30, 2014

When I was laid off from a small software company a few months ago I was offered the chance to buy any of the equipment I wanted to keep (laptop, large monitor, tablets) from my former employer for used prices. Some I bought and some I gave back. I would see if that's a possibility.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:03 PM on April 30, 2014

Do they owe you an amount of money equivalent to the value of the laptop? If so it is reasonable to keep the laptop in lieu of payment. If not, you should return it to them, it's their property.
posted by w0mbat at 3:55 PM on April 30, 2014

I negotiated keeping my laptop from my last job when the company shut down. They offered everyone a £500 severance payment and I asked for and got the laptop (newish Macbook Pro) instead.
posted by corvine at 3:55 PM on April 30, 2014

" I start a new job soon and it never even occurred to me to ask to keep the MacBook Pro from the job I'm leaving. Maybe I should have since they said "but you have a laptop" when I asked for a raise!"

One of the realities of non-profit work, which is what I'm doing now, is that everyone uses their own computers. I wouldn't give back my laptop if'n'when I leave, because I bought the damned thing with my own money. The netbook I'd have to use otherwise is a piece of shit. I just wish I made enough to deduct this from my taxes.
posted by klangklangston at 4:10 PM on April 30, 2014

You're dealing with inexperienced managers whose company is failing, and who are experiencing substantial stress and pressure as they try to find a way out of their mess. Just give them the laptop.

I absolutely believe they gave it to you (that's not weird at all in startup-land). I agree that it's lousy for them to weasel it back from you. However, it's not worth the fuss. It's just a laptop, and your next employer will happily give you one.
posted by grudgebgon at 6:01 PM on April 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

saying that they actually still needed my laptop

Did the first txt really acknowledge they had given you the laptop and were now taking it back? I could see how you could argue the laptop was part of your negotiated severance. A lawyer should be able to give you some clarity.
posted by saucysault at 8:37 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

You're dealing with inexperienced managers whose company is failing, and who are experiencing substantial stress and pressure as they try to find a way out of their mess.

The poor dears were practically forced to lie and renege!

I think a decent middle-ground, in the absence of a free and clear transfer, is to have the person who needs the laptop to call and ask you themselves. Having your old boss text you is pretty damn impersonal after knocking your job out from under you. Said another way, you may feel more allegiance to them more than they do you.
posted by rhizome at 10:32 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

You should give the laptop back. It's unusual to be able to keep a laptop, and the good will you want to keep is way more valuable than the hardware. Yeah whoever said you could keep the laptop in the first place shouldn't have said that, but here you are. It's not in writing, so legally you'd have a tenuous case at best. And pressing it makes you look like a jerk.

The more important context here is Everyone but the founders were laid off. If it's a typical SF angel/venture-backed company, that means that company is about to go completely broke and shut down. That laptop may be the most valuable thing the company owns :-( Unless some miracle happens and the founders give it a second wind (and that does happen) that company is doomed. If you're counting on anything else from the company you may want to move to secure it. Your unemployment benefits and your payroll taxes should both be secure unless they criminally screwed up. But if you're expecting one more paycheck, cash it very quickly. Also look to your health insurance, it's probably independent but you want to be sure.
posted by Nelson at 7:42 AM on May 1, 2014

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