Kate Brooks

Partner, Solicitor & Head of Employment/HR Services

DATE PUBLISHED: 29 Oct 2019 LAST UPDATED: 01 Nov 2022

Is it legal for an employee to wipe their computer on leaving employment?

Those that leave employment and believe that, as a final parting shot, they’ll delete data held by their employer on their computer systems should think again.

While still in employment (right up to the end of notice), employees are subject to various implied terms to include a duty of fidelity. This implied term includes the duty not to disrupt the employer’s or misuse their property. Deleting or interfering with data while still employed, could amount to a breach of these fundamental terms and entitle an employer to pursue an employee for breach of contract and claim financial damages.

To interfere with businesses data and the deletion of organisation files can also amount to criminal offences and liability, which if serious enough, can result in imprisonment.

Criminal liability and damage

While it’s arguable as to whether behaving in such a fashion would result in the offence of criminal damage, it is clear that such conduct can give rise to criminal liability, pursuant to Section 3 Computer Misuse Act 1990. 

An offence is committed if;  a disgruntled former employee accesses a computer on an unauthorised basis, with the knowledge that this is unauthorised, with the intention to impair the operation of any computer, or to prevent or hinder access to any programme or data held in any computer, or to impair the operation of any such programme or the reliability of such data.

A disgruntled former employee will even commit an offence if they are reckless as to whether what they have done will result in any of the above.

A wide range of different forms of conduct are included within Section 3, but it is beyond doubt that file deletion is among them.

The impact of wiping your computer when leaving employment

So, the question is – how serious is this? From an employer’s perspective it can be extremely harmful and damaging. Deletion of files and information held on computers can have huge, adverse effects on revenue streams and interrupt the normal flow of business, without mentioning any associated costs of remedying the conduct and fixing the problems caused. It could, if grave enough, even put in jeopardy the viability of an ongoing concern.

Remember, the maximum sentence for such an offence is 10 years imprisonment.

Disgruntled former employees should therefore think very carefully and reflect on what they do with the computer screen in front of them, when in notice or on termination of their employment.

If you have any queries in relation to this areas of need advise or legal guidance on how to handle such a matter, please do not hesitate to get in touch with one of our experienced Employment Lawyers on 01202 525333 for further advice.

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