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Worker suspected of selling trade secrets

An anonymous letter came to the chief executive officer (CEO) informing him of a worker believed to be selling the company’s sales strategies and other related confidential information to a competitor. The CEO gave the letter to the human resources (HR) department and the department head involved for proper disposition. How do we handle this case? — Half Moon.

“Employee loyalty begins with employer loyalty,” says American businessman, author and columnist Harvey Mackay. “Your employees should know that if they do the job they were hired to do with a reasonable amount of competence and efficiency, you will support them.” So, what happens if you don’t support them?

This happens when employees feel aggrieved due to meager income, an unfair work situation, or inhumane treatment, among other things. People who believe that they’re being taken advantage of often take matters into their own hands. But selling trade secrets to a competitor is an extreme case.

Most disgruntled workers would simply leave and join another company. This case is extraordinary. Of course, not all disgruntled workers are lucky enough to have a replacement job waiting for them. Maybe they don’t have what it takes to be an interesting find for another employer.

What I’m driving at is the need to discover why your suspect is resorting to that extreme measure of selling for profit the company’s trade secrets. This is for us to prevent a recurrence of this unfortunate situation. It may take some time to understand all the reasons, but it is a fair guess that your suspect is extremely angry with your management and organization.

SOLUTIONSDon’t rush to judgment on this. It is a very serious allegation to make against an employee. You should not be emotional in managing this case as you don’t want the matter to escalate. Handle everything logically and legally while keeping the following in mind:

One, investigate the matter quickly and quietly. First thing to do is to take the anonymous letter with a grain of salt. How did the letter come about? Was it through regular post or private courier? What if the letter turns out to be a hoax? Or what if that poison pen letter was intended to malign an innocent person?

If you take the bait, how would you protect the interests of your organization in the event of a wrongful prosecution? Are you ready and able to pay for damages in case a suspect turns out to be innocent? The answers to these questions are often enough for some organizations to ignore the issue.

Two, alert everyone on the proper handling of proprietary information. Do this while you’re trying to investigate the circumstances of this case. Review all policies with lawyers to make the protection of company data everyone’s responsibility of everyone. This includes requiring all managers and workers to sign non-disclosure agreements.

The rule of thumb is to limit the spread of information only to those who need to know. The fewer people with access to confidential information, the better for the organization.

Last, treat managers and workers the right way. When you treat everyone with dignity and respect, it becomes more difficult for them to be disloyal to the organization. Train your line managers and supervisors to engage their direct reports about their motivations and career expectations. As much as possible, make salary and benefits a non-issue.

If your company can’t afford to pay much, think of alternative ways to compensate for that. It may include giving them challenging work assignments that help build their confidence and the skills necessary for career advancement. If not, empower the workers to solve organizational problems that have proved difficult to manage.

Another option is to offer soft rewards like flexible work schedules. Try to maintain a friendly work atmosphere and an enjoyable environment.

COMPLEX ISSUEYou can’t keep from receiving anonymous letters. Receiving one is a symptom pointing to  a complex issue like the possibility of a labor dispute with an employees’ union. Sometimes, the case may stem from a personality clash between two or more managers.

Maybe it has something to do with the organization’s succession plan. Perhaps some manager is engaged in empire building, requiring one of the workers to be framed in order to taint the reputation of a leading candidate for promotion. The potential causes are endless. You may not be able to discover them all.

Whatever the case, if you’re playing it fair and square with the workers, it should be easy for them to reciprocate being treated well. Maintaining a generally humane policy is the only thing here that you can control.

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