Is this laptop ... mine now?
August 28, 2020 10:03 AM   Subscribe

I used to do freelance contract work for a ginormous multinational corporation, and they set me up with a company laptop. Work dried up 14 months ago. I've emailed thrice about returning the laptop but no cigar. Now what?

The original team I used to freelance for has disbanded entirely and been scattered across the org. Note that in spite of the fact that I haven't had any work from these folks for over 14 months, and I'm functionally not associated with this company in any capacity, nevertheless my login, user ID, and company email all still work. I'm just hangin out here in no man's land, folks, I exist and also I do not exist.

1. What's the level of due diligence I need to do regarding returning these folks' property? I emailed their IT department three times and cc'd my supervisor at the company. It seems the supervisor has moved to a new role in a different location of the same company and has no help to offer me here. The IT department has had a different person respond to me each time promising that they will be in touch about how to send their laptop back, but then *crickets*, and two months later I start the process all over again.

2. If they never respond, can I keep the laptop? Wheeee.

3. The company obviously has this laptop locked up tight with their own controls and whatever. I don't have admin privileges. Does this mean I have to throw the laptop in the bin at some point if it remains unclaimed?
posted by MiraK to Work & Money (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Ethically, it's not your laptop. If your email and account still work, and if you connect through VPN into their network, technically you're still using their network infrastructure. If you keep it, it's locked down, and you probably couldn't even wipe it and reinstall Windows. It's also probable the BIOS or UEFI is locked with a password (especially if it's a ginormous company). It likely has a physical asset tag (like a barcode/sticker) on it, and someone is accountable for it as real property on some account in said company.

If you have no use for it, I would personally send it back certified/registered mail/shipping and send an email to the IT help desk and cc: HR, IT Head, and Department head of your project and with provide them with the tracking number and an explanation of why you're returning it. Keep the shipping receipt and acknowledgement of receipt when you get it.

Hopefully they will reimburse you for shipping. If not, deduct it from your taxes.
posted by Master Gunner at 10:20 AM on August 28, 2020 [9 favorites]

Came to say what Master Gunner said, they type faster then me.
posted by tiamat at 10:22 AM on August 28, 2020

You've made a good faith effort to return the laptop. If you have a shipping address for the company you could, of course, return it and let them sort it out - but doesn't seem like you should have to foot the bill for shipping when you've tried several times to return it.

I see two scenarios - one, nobody ever asks for the laptop. Two, if the company leases their equipment or has a managed program, you may finally get a (now urgent) request to return the laptop so they can return it to their supplier or whatever. My employer does 3-year leases or something and they get frantic about reaping laptops to return them when their time is up.

But we also have some equipment bought outside that arrangement that the company is very lax about tracking and likely would never be asked about and if you asked "should I return it?" the IT person would have no process for managing it and would probably just hope you'd stop asking.

If you need a laptop and the laptop has a removable drive, I'd consider removing the current hard drive and putting my own in and installing my own OS that doesn't have their controls on it. (Assuming that 1. the drive is removable, and 2. that the lockdown/controls don't extend to the firmware...) If they finally do wake up and ask for its return, then you can just plop the old drive in and send it back.
posted by jzb at 10:22 AM on August 28, 2020

I was coming in to say what Master Gunner said; but I think you can set it up so that FedEx bills the RECIPIENT for the shipping costs. That way it would be on their dime from the get-go.

I'd contact them one more time and let them know that if you don't hear otherwise from them by X date, you will indeed ship it back to them, COD. If and when you do, then send them one last email saying "here's the tracking number, Fedex says you'll have it by X date, good bye" and then be done with it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:24 AM on August 28, 2020 [13 favorites]

I mean it sounds to me like you aren't off boarded yet and at whatever point you get off boarded, they will want their stuff back. I wouldn't consider this laptop yours at all. At some point they will catch up with things and off board you and at that point will expect their equipment back. If no one is listening to you, you may want to contact HR and explain to them you are a still-boarded contractor not getting any work and still in possession of company assets. I imagine they will "help you" where as always with HR, "help you" means help the company.
posted by cmm at 10:42 AM on August 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Eh, it's also abandoned property left in your care, and the previous owner has resisted your repeated attempts to return.

You can look up abandoned property law in your jurisdiction but ethically I don't think you have to try a fourth or fifth or sixth time to solve their problem. Accepting work property at your home doesn't ethically burden you forever when they stop talking to you, that's on them.

Sure, give it back if they ever manage to tell you how, but until then I'd happily treat it as my own, including wiping it, swapping drives, using it as a doorstop, whatever I want (ok, short of selling or intentionally destroying it).
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:45 AM on August 28, 2020 [8 favorites]

As tempting as it is, I dont think you can assume that the IT staff not following up with you means that they don't want it back. Sounds like there's a lot going on at the org. They may be needing the dust to settle a little before they can put work hours into this. It sucks that you're needing to use your own mental space to deal with it though.
posted by eisforcool at 10:46 AM on August 28, 2020

Well if there's a way I can ship the laptop to these folks without having to pay for it, that's ideal and excellent. I'll make sure it's possible and then I'll email IT and let them know I plan to do this in October unless they give me different instructions by end of September.

Ah, it's a beaut of a laptop, far fancier than I'll ever be able to afford myself, and the occasional fantasy that I might be able to ride off into a sunset with it has been nice :P
posted by MiraK at 11:06 AM on August 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you've already solved this, but at my last place I made a deal with them to buy the laptop for the book value. (They depreciated hardware over the expected useful life and there was like $200 or so left.) They didn't need the hardware and were happy to let me have it; after I sent in a check they remotely blew it up and I did a fresh install of Windows 10.

If you are willing to pay something for it, perhaps you could email and say 'I've tried a few times to give this back to you guys and am happy to send it wherever. If ACME Global no longer has a need for the hardware, I would be interested in buying it. [Please contact me and all that].'

Maybe there's an opportunity to get an unlocked laptop for cheap-ish
posted by AgentRocket at 11:27 AM on August 28, 2020 [21 favorites]

I think it's likely that you've simply been completely forgotten about in the organization. A company in the middle of layoffs/downsizing doesn't care about your laptop. There's no one in the company that needs it, and there's no one in the company with time to properly receive it, wipe it, and reimage it. The cost of your laptop is minuscule compared to your pay or the pay of the people is on the other side of dealing with all that paperwork. A laptop is a depreciating asset.

If the laptop isn't one of Apple's "calls home upon wipe to check ownership" laptops, I would absolutely wipe it and use it as your own. For the first couple of years, I would be a little wary of storing anything that's irreplaceable on it. Maybe even buy my own SSD and swap it in. But the only reason someone would care about your laptop is if it started accessing company materials or reporting back that it had malware (or similar) on it.
posted by meowzilla at 12:52 PM on August 28, 2020 [4 favorites]

Same thing happened to me with a major corp. Their IT departament let older laptops fall through the cracks. I notified them twice that I still had it and... nothing.

I held onto it for a couple years, then wiped it with DBAN on a USB stick and installed Linux. My only regret is that I didn't wipe it sooner.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 4:29 PM on August 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

First, it's apparent that there is no one at the company who is actually responsible for this computer. Second, assuming the computer is three years old, or nearly so, it's useless to them because they would never issue it to a different person. New hires probably get new computers. So I think the risks of keeping it are very small.

When I retired, I had a company laptop which they explicitly told me I could keep. Instead I returned it because I had a laptop of my own and because there was antivirus and other security software on it which was no longer being updated.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:23 AM on August 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

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