10 Corporate America Rules You Break Every Day

We all do it, and we all think it is not a big deal but breaking some of these rules can get you fired or land you in jail. Ignorance will not be an adequate defense if you find yourself breaking one of these 10 rules.

1. Taking a picture of your desk, badge or work area.

I’ve had this conversation with people over and over again for one simple reason, it can get you fired. Most companies in technology and scientific research fields do not patent everything they design or discover and keep it under wraps by using intellectual property controls and agreements. When you photograph your desk or your credentials, you give outsiders a glimpse into the way your company operates. You could unwittingly divulge trade secrets and proprietary data. Also, avoid taking pictures with your badge on. Someone could use the picture to create a fake credential and be successful at using it to gain access to your workplace. These escapements are usually easy to trace back to the leak, especially if you posted the picture on social media. Also, remove any dashboard passes from your car when not inside company property or in use. These can be counterfeited or stolen to gain access to the company, and used with a fake badge to solidify credibility.

2. Not charging overtime.

A lot of my coworkers and peers think that not charging OT shows their loyalty and commitment to the job. The reality is that for government contracts, all hours must be accounted for and undercharging is a no-no. If an audit concludes the program did not charge properly, the government can cancel the contract and/or bar the company from future bids. Even if you are exempt from the law, in certain states and circumstances, salaried workers must get paid for OT work even if it wasn’t approved by your management. This can result in corrective action though and termination if the team had already announced OT was not allowed. If your manager asks you to work OT they must pay for the hours. In Europe, it is illegal for salaried employees to work extra hours above and beyond those allotted per contract. Also, if you are on a leave of absence, abstain or doing any work related activities like checking email or answering calls. You are off the clock and should remain so regardless of the urgency you feel it may have. That’s what your backups are for.

3. Printing/destroying work related documents at home.

Printing and destroying work documents at home is mostly related to information leaks and data protection. If you don’t cross shred the documents, the information could be pieced together and reused. Make sure your shredder or waste management protocol is up to company standards. Most employers disable the ability to connect non network printers to your computer, and tampering with that safety mechanism can result in corrective action or termination. Be very careful when handling proprietary data because if it falls in the wrong hands, fines and even jail time could be in your future under Economic Espionage Act Laws.

4. Emailing proprietary or sensitive documents to personal accounts.

This rule can vary depending on the type of work you do and the company you support but most tech and science companies will provide you with equipment that enables you to encode, encrypt and store sensitive data. The intention is that you do not send data to your personal accounts with lower levels of security. Corporate espionage is a thing and believe it or not they can target you without you realizing it. That’s why most mail servers have anti-phising and spam filters. That is the only way to ensure that the corporate data remains secret. Like the other rules, this type of leak can result in fines, time off work, dismissal and jail time, depending on who accessed the data and the reason why it was forwarded to the personal accounts. Using company data that you have created or discovered for a personal enterprise is also a no-no and is punishable by law. In theory this would include any email you forwarded but certain exceptions can be made for personal emails or personal information forwarded from work to home, such as medical plan or employee benefit information.

5. Using corporate email or equipment for personal purposes.

There are many reasons not to use corporate email and equipment for personal purposes, especially because the equipment was purchased, maintained and usually included in a corporate data and voice plan. In the case of tools and supplies, these items are purchase with company funds and misusing them or borrowing them is akin to stealing by law. Using corporate mail for personal purposes is wrong because it gives the recipient the idea that you are representing the company. In many corporations only certain individuals can engage outsiders on behalf of the company. Abusing internet access from a work location to surf the net, stream music or videos, and check social media is bad twofold; firstly because it uses corporate bandwidth and secondly because you are using company time to complete personal business. Most companies frown upon employees mischarging time by including lengthy breaks and downtime in their time cards. Computers and phones should only be used for personal business with approval. Don’t assume that you can take your work computer home to do school assignments, access personal and public wi-fi spots, or stream content. Viruses and Trojan horses could be loaded to the system this way, causing damage to the integrity of your computer and your work servers. Out of all the innocuous violations this is the one that can cause the most damage because it can inadvertently cause problems for the entire company.

6. Clocking in or out for a coworker.

This one applies mostly to hourly workers since clocking in for a coworker can result in dismissal. In salaried circles, covering for a missing employee can result in corrective action, especially if the employee is charging the time to a program or project and is not actually physically in the office or available while working remotely. Miss-charging can cause debarment from government contracts and undercharging to customers or suppliers. A healthy business must be aware of the actual costs of the labor or services provided and mistakes like these can result in lost wages or earnings. Never cover for someone that you do not know is in the area, and always let your boss know if someone is absent without an excuse for periods of an hour or longer, especially if you are in training that requires attendance to get credit.

7. Taking work computers and phones outside the country.

This one is a no brainer but many people do it because their company cell phone has an international data plan and they rather not pay to upgrade their service, or they have made their business phone their personal phone (hopefully with management approval). Taking a computer or phone outside of the USA requires that you clear the content of the computer and get approval from your internal governance organization to transport the data outside of the protected area. In many countries, you must declare the value of the business data and provide proof that you can transport the data through customs. Violating this protocol can result in jail time, fines, termination and corrective action, especially if the hardware falls into the wrong hands.

8. Accepting kickbacks and gifts from customers and suppliers.

Government employees cannot accept any time of gift, business courtesy or kick back over a set value based by program rules. Usually, this means that any item over ten dollars, USD, cannot be provided to the individual and/or kept by the person to avoid the appearance of impropriety. A kickback is a gift given with the intention of securing a contract or service agreement and it is against the law to accept these under any circumstances, even when you are representing the company in business dealings in countries where these practices are the norm. Gifts from customers and suppliers to non-governmental employees is regulated by company practices which usually follow the Federal rules. If you are not certain of the value or would like to keep a particular gift, check with the ethics department to figure out if the policy allows you to buy the item back. Most companies will donate the items to charities or may auction them at the end of the year to secure funds for charitable contributions made on behalf of the company.

9. Talking about work in public.

I can’t stress this rule enough: divulging information about your work, even if you are talking to coworkers in public, is a violation of company policy and is related to trade secrets and proprietary information protection. Unless you are talking about public information, and your banter cannot be misinterpreted as an official position of the company, avoid the subject all together. This also means you shouldn’t divulge sensitive information to your spouse or family because these people can inadvertently pass the information on to people who can use it to gain competitive advantage. Sometimes the SEC has to investigate leaks that occurred because an employee released private information to a select group of people that benefited from the sale or exchange of stocks and options, resulting in insider trading. You can certainly reveal certain aspects of your job, like your title or email, but be aware that information that cannot be learned from a business card is usually out of scope and cannot be share. In some cases, this may include benefits and employee incentive plans, and interview questions and job posting key words. Always check before posting information online and quickly take down any information that has been deemed damaging by the company.

10. Not providing adequate backups during extended absences.

There hasn’t been a job that I have held where the requisite for leaving on vacation, sick leave or personal leave doesn’t include having a viable backup. This doesn’t mean that you have a name and number attached to your out of office, it implies that the person can actually perform your duties or assist others in performing tasks related to your work statement. When your back up doesn’t know how to positively contribute in meetings or projects you were conducting, progress can be hurt and any damage done by the lack of follow up will be noticeable and sometimes hard to repair. A capable backup should be able to point to your data files, lessons learned and inputs, redirecting people to the correct personnel for support, if required. When you are a backup, make sure you follow all the instructions and protocols left by the person you are assisting, and do your best to perform the job as effectively as possible. Both behinds are on the line when you have a backup and a primary; avoid embarrassment to you and your team and make sure whomever steps up is prepared to make decisions and get results while you are away. Offload projects of high scope and impact before departing on extended leave situations, unless you are 100% sure that no change is expected during your time away.


There may be other rules that are broken in your area every day that are specific to your employer’s policies. Always check with HR before performing any changes to your work schedule or records, and before taking any information home to dispose of it. Check local laws and corporate guidance before deciding to charge or undercharge as the impact can be severe for both you and the company. And please, avoid taking pictures or anything inside the property line especially if it is for personal use such as Snapchat or Facebook. You can get yourself and those who see it in deep trouble with their organization and manager. No one wants a mark on their permanent record because of your inconsiderate lack of common sense. Avoid becoming an example of what not to do.

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