Kate Brooks
Partner, Solicitor & Head of Employment/HR Services
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Date Published:29 Oct 2019 Last Updated:01 Aug 2021

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

Employment Law Advice

Those that leave employment and think that as a parting shot they will delete data held by their employer on 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 data and the deletion of files can also amount to criminal offences and liability, which if serious enough can result in imprisonment.

Whilst it is 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. In the event of a disgruntled former employee accessing a computer on an unauthorised basis, knowing that when such access takes place that it 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, an offence is committed.

A disgruntled former employee will even commit an offence if he is reckless as to whether what is done will do 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 one.

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 adversely affect revenue streams and interrupt the normal flow of business, leaving aside any associated costs of remedying the conduct. 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 please do not hesitate to contact one of our experienced Employment Lawyers on 01202 525333 for further advice.