My coworkers deleted a major project of mine - permanently
October 23, 2021 8:56 AM   Subscribe

It seems like my coworkers have permanently deleted a major project of mine. What to do?

I work in the programming department of a cultural institution. One of my tasks is to create/revise school programs. I spent from March to June 2020 overhauling a very dated program that hadn’t been reviewed since about the late 90s due to understaffing and other things being bumped up the priority list.

I completely changed the formatting of the doc, updated the content to be less focused on white settlers and include Indigenous knowledge/traditions, created extensive curriculum links and a list of teacher resources, printable chaperone instructions and materials for parents/chaperones, as well as several pre- and post-visit classroom activities.

The program had a section on global warming where students made a working model of an electric car, so I had it reviewed by the local environmental society, two Indigenous consultants, and the president of the electric car club so they could approve/tweak the exact wording. I’m not a STEM-y person, so I relied on them for knowledge/terminology. All said, this document was 50 pages of what I would say was 90% new content, including copy for our marketing department. It was fully approved and ready for implementation.

When we were WFH during Covid, we were told to save all documents exclusively to SharePoint. I was told specifically to not save anything to my laptop because it was not connected to the server and it would be some months before they could buy me a work one; it was my personal laptop. Our department got a memo from our director in April 2020 saying we weren’t allowed to move/delete anything from SP without her permission.

I’ve been on medical leave since June but am returning to work in early November. I had a conversation with my director a week ago where she gave some high level updates on our department. One of them was that nobody could find this school program doc and this was a problem as we now need to think about how we’re going to offer it to students starting in March. She asked if I could go on SP and find the files.

I realized once on SP that my coworkers had moved/deleted a lot of files - there was nothing with a timestamp older than this past June. I emailed them to ask where the program had gone. They sent me the SP link again saying that as far as they knew, nothing was missing. I started to realize in looking through SP that most of my work from last year was gone - I would say about 6 months worth of projects and files.

It turns out that my coworkers wanted to clean-up how the homepage of their SharePoint looked because there were too many inactive files on the home screen, so they tried to copy/merge a bunch of folders over to a new 2021 homepage but didn’t really know how. It didn’t work. Everything from 2020 bar a few stray folders was deleted. They did not have our director’s go-ahead to do this as they believed to have the process in hand.

We have so far not been able to recover any files - it seems like our SP likely wasn’t backing up anywhere, not even with our tech support company. The 93 day window in which it seems you can retrieve files from SP itself has passed for this one major project. I have checked the sent folder of my email to see if I ever sent it to anyone as an attachment - but I didn’t. The size of the file made it so I always had to send the SP link, which now throws a 404 error.

So, my questions are:
- Does anyone fluent in SharePoint know of any other way we could possibly retrieve these files?

- I don’t know what to say to my coworkers about this, if anything. One of them emailed me to apologize and I said something vague in response about ideas for how to recover the files. I don’t think they fully understand the extent of what’s been lost as most of the deleted files were A) my work and not theirs (they had work laptops from the get go so their files automatically saved to the server/Cloud) and B) applied to not currently active projects so it’s not like these files are needed tomorrow or anything. They will most definitely be needed eventually, however.

- I just did 6 months of chemotherapy. I’m tired and emotionally depleted. I’m starting to get the feeling that if we can’t find the original file, I will be the one asked to do all this work again. I know it’s work and I’m there to do what my boss asks, but I don’t have the wherewithal for redoing a project of that caliber on an accelerated timeline right now, especially as I’m only going back 3 days a week until the new year. I could use some scripts on how to navigate this conversation with my director if it comes up, please.

Thanks, MeFites! :)
posted by oywiththepoodles to Human Relations (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
as much as meetings suck you need a meeting with these people, their boss, you, and your boss. make the full extent known and the challenges faced unless the data can be restored. don't blame, no emotions, just the facts.

this might help?
posted by evilmonk at 9:10 AM on October 23, 2021 [7 favorites]

Have you checked the .TMP files on your laptop?
posted by carmicha at 9:28 AM on October 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Oof, so sorry. I have no tech advice, but given that this sounds like it was largely managements fault (it shouldn't have been so easy for someone to accidentally delete the only copy of that much work), I write them a detailed description of all the work that has been lost and remind them this took you four months of (I'm assuming) full-time work. Clearly, this is too much work for one person working 3 days a week to re-do before March, so I'd request making this a team (or at least pair) project. Perhaps working on it with another person would also help keep your spirits up somewhat? Good luck.
posted by coffeecat at 9:41 AM on October 23, 2021 [7 favorites]

I don't know what you've done already so apologies if this is all water under the bridge, but if you have an IT dept and they aren't involved yet, make this a high priority incident for them as soon as possible (with your boss in the loop). As evilmonk says, irrespective of whether they can get your files back, they need to understand the full extent of the problem, what they can get back, and what they can do to stop something like this happening again - no backups is a problem, and it sounds like there might also be policy/permission issues that let them delete your stuff.

In terms of recovering files, unless you can find a local copy I think you are out of luck. Is it possible someone else might have downloaded it locally while you were off, or they have a synced copy of the site and have somehow not updated it?
posted by crocomancer at 9:48 AM on October 23, 2021 [11 favorites]

I want to encourage you to email your supervisor with your concerns and then tell them you aren’t available for further discussions til November or they need to pay you. Let them try to clean this up. I’m so sorry this is on you right now.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:49 AM on October 23, 2021 [32 favorites]

Assuming this is SharePoint Online (which means it lives on Microsoft's servers) and not an on-premise implementation:

When something is deleted from SharePoint then it spends 30 days in the recycle bin (which everyone has access to), then 30 days in the second stage recycle bin (which only site owners have access to). After that it is deleted and - I'm sorry to say - that means deleted from Microsoft's servers. So if you have gone past this 60 day window the file is gone.

If your implementation of SharePoint is on-premise (which means it lives on servers your company owns) then it is possible that your IT department have weekly or monthly backups of the SharePoint databases.

If you're not sure if you have SharePoint Online or an on-premise implementation of SharePoint, ask your IT department.

If you have SharePoint Online and the file is gone, the only other option is to search SharePoint and see if the file has been saved anywhere else. Go to your SharePoint site and click the word "SharePoint" on the toolbar (it should be on the left of the toolbar, next to the 9 dots). In the page that opens, type in the file name into the Search bar in the middle of the toolbar and see what comes back. Hopefully someone has saved it somewhere else.....

(It's important you search from the SharePoint page, not just search from your site, because searching from that SharePoint page will search ALL of your SharePoint tenant, whereas searching in your site will just search that site)
posted by underclocked at 9:50 AM on October 23, 2021 [17 favorites]

I'm so sorry. I would have been absolutely livid over this.

One other thought to add on to the above: you could try reaching out to the people you sent it to for review/notes and see if there's any chance they downloaded it or saved it somewhere in the course of their checking the work?
posted by fight or flight at 10:07 AM on October 23, 2021 [29 favorites]

Also I would suggest, if you can/feel emotionally up to it, that this would be a good opportunity to push for your getting a work laptop, since it sounds like this wouldn't have been an issue if you had been given the same accommodations as your colleagues, particularly since you're part-time and WFH. It's pretty untenable that you're being asked to do all of this work on your personal machine. Even if it's just a cheap Chromebook or something it'll be better for you to have a dedicated work laptop that can keep files backed up.
posted by fight or flight at 10:15 AM on October 23, 2021 [11 favorites]

When we were WFH during Covid, we were told to save all documents exclusively to SharePoint. I was told specifically to not save anything to my laptop because it was not connected to the server and it would be some months before they could buy me a work one; it was my personal laptop.

And you have now found out, at considerable personal cost, why the only correct response to a directive like that coming down from above is to think (but never ever say out loud or in writing) "fuck you, I will make multiple copies of everything I make and save them wherever the fuck I want, and I'm happy to keep a live copy or even the authoritative copy on your SharePoint if that's where you want to be able to find it, but you fuckers do not get to tell me what work of mine I do or do not keep backed up on my own personal devices."

The reason you never say this out loud or in writing is because work done for money usually ends up being the employer's intellectual property. But always bear in mind that any IT department competent enough to catch you breaching your employer's IP directives is also an IT department you can probably trust not to fucking drop your fucking stuff on the fucking floor.

If your org's IT department can't restore from their own backup systems anything they've ever accepted responsibility for storing within at least the past ten years, then by my lights they're not worth what they're being paid. And I say that as an ex school IT netadmin who was likely paid a lot less than them and could do that.

How totally infuriating. My condolences for your loss.
posted by flabdablet at 10:25 AM on October 23, 2021 [65 favorites]

This is 100% not your fault, so I don't think you should wait until it comes up with your director. I would send a very straightforward factual summary of what happened, a reminder about your work schedule, a request for a work laptop, and a realistic and generous (to you) timeline of when you can have the project redone. Maybe also a request that your department review their IT policies. Deleting an entire year of work should not be possible.

I'm so sorry. This is painful to read.
posted by Mavri at 10:37 AM on October 23, 2021 [32 favorites]

Let them try to clean this up.

Seriously. This is on them - whether it's your coworkers, your manager, whoever might be standing in for you when you're on leave, etc. You did your work. You submitted it.* They lost it. It's their job to run around doing what they can to find it. Not yours. You can give them whatever notes you might have from the project, list of people you worked with, etc., but you're still on leave and this is just not your mess to clean up.

I don't think you need to say anything to your coworkers. Your manager should either be the point person on this or assign a point person who can deal with your coworkers. What you need is for your manager to understand (a) the extent of the mess, (b) where the responsibility for the mess lies (your coworkers, your IT team/policy), and (c) that you are still on medical leave, are unable to participate, and are involved in this only to the extent that you've been massively screwed over in your absence.

* Did your manager ever look over the completed project back when it was finished or close to finished (i.e. have they recognized the work you put into it?)
posted by trig at 10:46 AM on October 23, 2021 [19 favorites]

I am an IT guy, IANYITG: if your organization has a mission-critical tool that they don't maintain properly, then any failure is on the people who decided not to maintain it. If a Sharepoint install was ordered (in-house or out-hosted) without training and backups, then the senior person on that project can eat this.

That said, I am very sorry this failure ended up zapping so much of your work. That must be super frustrating -- and you're being more polite than I would be.

Your outsourced IT vendor should be brought in as soon as possible: there's a tiiiiny chance that the file is there but not linked (though most likely your idiot colleagues deleted it).

The correct solution has several parts: a factual explanation, a realistic estimate for the re-work, and a requisition for proper resources. These latter include a laptop, backups, training for your colleagues, a policy being created on how read-only versions of master documents will be protected, and a big goddamn apology (because you'll need to show it to all the external sources who you're going ot need to consult again, and you want them to be able to see/hear it, too).
posted by wenestvedt at 11:04 AM on October 23, 2021 [19 favorites]

I think you need to get your manager to handle this for you. I think a combination of a phone call with them and an email (with the order depending on how you work together best0.

Four person-months of work has been irretrievably lost by your colleagues, with the root cause being poor policies and processes for document storage and back up. It is neither practical nor desirable for you to singlehandedly solve this problem, which you did not cause. If the work is still required, then it needs to be redone and the organisation will need to decide how much of a priority that is and who has the capacity to deliver it in the relevant timeframe. You only have the actual availability that you have.

I would be so upset in your situation. I think, if you get on well, I would ask your manager to respond to the apology on your behalf. It sounds like your colleagues have massively underestimated the impact this has had. If this were someone I managed, I would be very willing to make sure that was understood properly, while recognising that none of this was deliberate.
posted by plonkee at 11:10 AM on October 23, 2021 [6 favorites]

Email your director to tell them they need to set up an urgent meeting (like, on Monday) between IT and the colleagues who "merged" all the Sharepoint folders so that the people who did the "merging" can directly communicate what happened and when, and IT can try to figure out a way to recover it. Your colleagues (and your manager) should be flipping out about everything that was lost, not just your stuff - who knows how much stuff on SP was the sole copy, as people try to keep their laptops clean.

You shouldn't be a part of that meeting; this has nothing to do with you, you weren't involved and should steer clear. Plus you're not actually back at work yet.

On November 1 when you're back at work, you and your director can discuss the results of that meeting and what IT has managed to recover, if anything.

If the project looks like it's landing back in your lap to recreate, tell your director that it's physically not something you can do again right now (and possibly mentally - chemo brain is a real thing). If it needs to be you, you need to be given a LOT of help with grunt work - people researching and compiling the "extensive curriculum links and a list of teacher resources, printable chaperone instructions and materials for parents/chaperones, as well as several pre- and post-visit classroom activities." Plus drafting the updates and the section on global warming, etc. All of that should be done to a high standard and ready for you to pull together in January when you return to work full-time.

If no one can help with any of that, there needs to be a compromise on how much gets done. Decide what you can realistically do on your own; if you honestly can't do enough to justify calling it a new program, say it will need to be instituted next fall or spring instead of this coming March. This really sounds like a program that shouldn't be half-assed.

I am so, so sorry.
posted by current resident at 11:23 AM on October 23, 2021 [19 favorites]

As a side note: depending on which country and which organisation you work in, it may be at best a breach of regulatory compliance and at worse illegal to keep files on a personal device.

I totally understand why some people are suggesting that, and it may be that the OP can do that without a compliance or legal problem, but as general advice it is not something to follow. There is usually a good reason why you aren't allowed to keep files on a personal device, and even accessing them from a personal device is a fire-able offence in some situations.

Tread very carefully here. It is much better, for many reasons, to make a backup in your work OneDrive, or another SharePoint library or site, than it is to download corporate documents to your personal device.
posted by underclocked at 11:38 AM on October 23, 2021 [10 favorites]

There is usually a good reason why you aren't allowed to keep files on a personal device, and even accessing them from a personal device is a fire-able offence in some situations.

Yes, but these policies go hand in hand with giving people tools to do their jobs. If people are forced to use their own devices that is already a very unsafe setup. Giving people a work tool means they can use that and have no good/acceptable reason to store anything on a personal device.

I was reading this waiting for the bit about the backup process and it turns out there wasn’t one. This organisation is clearly not a bastion of data security and good practices and the fact that no mention is made of IT’s involvement in fixing this is ominous. So if this work has to be re-created don’t just be clear on realistic timeline, also insist on being given appropriate tools to safeguard the work.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:55 AM on October 23, 2021 [10 favorites]

I am so sorry this happened to you. What a nightmare. You didn't do anything wrong and your work needs to absolutely step up and do things to assure you that this won't happen again. They broke your trust and some reparative measures are in order. You should not have to recreate the content on the same or a shorter timeline just because of someone else's profound carelessness. I also don't think it would be wrong for you to stress to your director that this may have negative impacts on your relationship with your Indigenous collaborators, particularly if you need to go solicit them for the same feedback, if you think that is the case. I had something analogous happen once in a related line of work and it harmed my relationships with my collaborators, especially because the people who fucked up in my job did less than nothing to make it right for me or for them.

One way that your job could repair this would be by not only getting you a laptop but also giving you an external hard drive to store files on. They also need to seriously clean up their data policies because this was a serious catastrophic failure on their part. Honestly, in my similar situation I seriously considered getting another job and really regret not doing it. Leaving then would have been very smart, because the level of catastrophic failure that was allowed was indicative of irreversible rot in management and leadership.

I'm so sorry that this happened.
posted by twelve cent archie at 12:53 PM on October 23, 2021 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the excellent responses and suggestions so far. I did check my .tmp files when this first happened and unfortunately, nothing came from that. I will look into possibly emailing our partners to see if they have a copy when I return but am also worried about damaging relationships, as someone mentioned.

Popping in to also add that my org doesn’t have any kind of an in-house IT department; all of that work is outsourced to this external tech company.

There’s an organizational point person who oversaw the installation of our SharePoint (this person is also HR/payroll/OSHA/general admin, very overworked and stretched very thin), but she does not come from a tech background and from what I know, her and I have about the same level of SP knowledge.
posted by oywiththepoodles at 1:27 PM on October 23, 2021

I also don't think it would be wrong for you to stress to your director that this may have negative impacts on your relationship with your Indigenous collaborators, particularly if you need to go solicit them for the same feedback, if you think that is the case.

Yes, this. This could do massive amounts of damage to those relationships, and damage your institution's reputation on a broad scale among Indigenous communities. This is really bad. "We didn't mean to, whoops" doesn't really help when it's about "someone threw away everything you contributed to this project about being less careless with Indigenous culture and history".
posted by current resident at 1:33 PM on October 23, 2021 [30 favorites]

I am so sorry this happened.

As an employee of a small external tech company that maintains SharePoint sites/Microsoft environments like this for various small-to-medium businesses, I hate to say it, but a number of vendors in this space are one-or-two-person operations that don't do a lot more than resell licenses for Microsoft products and reset passwords. If that's all you've been paying your vendor for, as an organization, you might be due for a conversation about moving to an IT provider that does things like trainings and backups.

Regarding the work laptop situation, you not having received one yet might have an explanation other than negligence. I have said a lot of diplomatic phrases to the effect "Resign yourself to not being able to access and/or store work resources on personal devices as soon as we can get you onto a work-controlled device." This depends on the key step of getting devices onto which we can apply work-control features. Here in Global Microchip Shortage COVID Heck, that step is especially slow, expensive, and difficult for IT providers and our client companies.

I mean, work computers have never been cheap, but as of Fall 2021, there are special penalties for ordering in bulk, rather than discounts, and some orders are seeing months or weeks of delay. It is extremely possible that your IT provider and your employer would desperately love to issue you a new work laptop, and are doing their level best to acquire one, and it's still going to be a While.
posted by All Might Be Well at 3:10 PM on October 23, 2021 [3 favorites]

I could use some scripts on how to navigate this conversation with my director if it comes up, please.

Here's a first-take try:

What occurred here is a problem greater in scope than my individual responsibilities, and while I'm happy to help, it's going to need to be a departmental or [company/district-]wide issue to restore this work.

I know we each have individual responsibilities to individual jobs, but given what you know I've gone through, I am not in the same place, resourcewise, where I was when I first oversaw the production of that work, and through no fault of mine. That means I can't reconstruct it with the speed or energy that I first produced it.

I reasonably feel that, given my current abilities, I could have this work reconstructed on my own by [date]. If you want that earlier, then I suggest we divvy up sections amongst [entities], and I can give to each working group broad basic data points of what I remember each section entailed.

It is also clear that these files were destroyed because of a lack of clarity in IT policy, and a failure to make recurring backups. I would strongly suggest that this makes clear that [name of company/school district] needs its own [CIO/CTO], one who will make it an immediate priority to make sure this kind of massive data loss can't occur again.
posted by WCityMike2 at 4:07 PM on October 23, 2021 [5 favorites]

it may be at best a breach of regulatory compliance and at worse illegal to keep files on a personal device.

Yeah, it might.

But while in theory it could well be illegal for the creator of work done for hire to keep backups of that work on the same personal device on which the work was made, in practice the data integrity benefits of doing so frequently outweigh the legal and security risks, especially for employees of small, under-funded orgs with manifestly inadequate IT support on tap. Adequate IT support is crazy expensive. Many little orgs simply can't afford it.

If push comes to shove then obviously the employee with the unauthorized copies on their personal devices does risk getting penalized for holding those. So obviously it's a good idea to be a bit disciplined about where and how you keep your unauthorized personal backups, so that when your employment ends you can be sure you'll easily be able to find and erase them all.

But for work product that doesn't involve privacy or security risks to third parties if it leaks and doesn't constitute readily monetized trade secrets, in practice nobody is going to give you much if any grief for a compliance breach like this. For most employees in most places, most of the time this would be on the scale of driving 70 in a 60 zone, not a Chelsea Manning goes to prison kind of deal.

Far and away the most likely outcome in a small org is that your employer will never even realize you even have your own backups until they find themselves kissing the ground you walk on for your miraculous ability to mitigate their data loss disasters.

I was an IT guy, I am not your IT guy, but this absolutely is practical IT advice. Digital information doesn't really exist until you can put your hands on at least three copies.
posted by flabdablet at 6:57 PM on October 23, 2021 [10 favorites]

My blood is boiling for you. If you haven't done this already, do a search on your computer for the file name (just set it up to run and leave the room for a few hours while it goes through every file on your computer) and check your downloads folder, just in case. Sorry this happened.
posted by Toddles at 7:47 PM on October 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

I feel your pain. All I can say is you'll find you can recreate it faster than it took in the first place. I hope that is some consolation.
posted by hypnogogue at 8:51 PM on October 23, 2021

Oh, damn, what a cruel loss.

What I would suggest is not bringing this up as something your coworkers did. They screwed up, and it hit this uniquely important file, but they should never have been in a position where their error could do this to you. Because humans gonna human.

This SharePoint setup is an accident waiting to happen, and it cost your institution however many thousands of dollars of your time, plus the hit to collaborators and to the place's reputation. This will happen again, and it may be even more of a last-minute surprise that can't be recovered in time or at all.

They could store printouts of high-value docs offsite tomorrow, if that's what they can start with.
posted by away for regrooving at 9:32 PM on October 23, 2021 [5 favorites]

Your colleagues fucked up royally. Management didn’t give enough sharepoint training or set the system up so that people without skills have too much power. They should be removed as site owners immediately but that is your boss’s call. I would be very clear that you had your work wiped and that you’re leaving it to your boss to handle the consequences for those idiots (but politely) and that you can redo the work but it will take (generous time) and require other tasks be moved off your plate.

At the very least you should have cloud access from your personal laptop going forward.

I am so sorry, what idiots.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:51 PM on October 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

You tell your boss that that they have all your sympathies, that sounds really rough and you’ll send him any files you might have. Wish them the best of luck putting the project back together and then excuse yourself as unfortunately you have to dive back into chemotherapy. Don’t for a second consider taking this on and make it clear to everyone that you are not an option. Their screw up, their problem. Professionally, of course. For them, this is just a work disaster. If you make it your problem, you have your health at stake as well and that’s just not on.
posted by Jubey at 12:31 AM on October 24, 2021 [13 favorites]

The 93-days stands out to me - this is strong indication of it being "SharePoint Online". (The defaults for 1st and 2nd-stage Recycle-Bin combined in 365/SPO are... 93-days)

Microsoft does perform database-backups - and your IT people could have opened a support incident - but, that would only be possible for another 14-days after the first 93-days.

At this point, if they did not configure a 3rd-party tool to backup their SharePoint Online, and you do not have local copies - the work is gone. (Have heard good things about "Veem")

Having worked for similar clients with similar organizational policies, with people who were not technically adept in SharePoint, I always keep copies of my work - while working for that client. (But most provide their own equipment/laptop, so I still am keeping copies of files on a device they own - just in a local folder)

Even technical people like recent programmer graduates do not understand SharePoint - last year, I had a situation where all of our team members had synchronized a SharePoint library locally to their computers using the OneDrive client. One of the team members organized, merged, moved and removed thousands of files and folders one day - using their local Windows File Explorer application. They didn't realize that those changes would synchronize to the Document Library in SharePoint Online.

Thankfully, these were needed right away - and I saw the changes the next day - but, it was simply a lack of training, understanding on my team members part.

(And that same client - deployed SharePoint Online without a 3rd-party backup solution - and the first person to be hurt by the 93-day Recycle Bin automatic-deletion was... the person in charge of the Records & Information Management team... the crap really hit the fan there... I had warned them about requiring backup within the first month of the project and was told in no uncertain terms that it wasn't necessary)
posted by rozcakj at 4:01 AM on November 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

I had warned them about requiring backup within the first month of the project and was told in no uncertain terms that it wasn't necessary

That's always been my cue to start keeping surreptitious, unauthorized backups on one of my own devices whenever they're not looking. If they're clueless enough to believe that they don't need backups, they're too clueless to spot the exfiltration.

There is no satisfaction quite like the satisfaction of being able to extract an arrogant managerial arse from a sling of their own making while watching them struggle to work out how to deal with the fact that the only reason I'm able to do that is that I've deliberately done something they made a very strong point of telling me not to. Especially if they did that in front of coworkers.
posted by flabdablet at 4:27 AM on November 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

One of the team members organized, merged, moved and removed thousands of files and folders one day - using their local Windows File Explorer application. They didn't realize that those changes would synchronize to the Document Library in SharePoint Online.

I would argue that the manifest failure of whoever initially configured that Document Library to pay any attention whatsoever to access control issues amounts to grievous incompetence.
posted by flabdablet at 4:32 AM on November 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

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