I have access to amazing engineering designs and calculation spreadsheets for every imaginable civil engineering project. Is it okay to take copies for use at my new job, to facilitate future project work?

Very often new hires come in with go-by documents and notebooks from their previous employers. One of my colleagues updated the specifications for a Utility using the documents from his previous job. I used to think that was wrong to do. But it is so commonplace, I wonder is it okay?

It certainly would save time. I guess that's why so many engineers do this. In fact one of my previous supervisors said take a USB drive and take whatever you want.

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    This is an ethics question and is extremely subjective. I've known many people who have done that.
    – forest
    Commented Aug 14, 2019 at 7:27
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    to those who might not know, above comment about Hans Moleman referred this meta discussion
    – gnat
    Commented Aug 14, 2019 at 9:36
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    This was/is a legit question. In America everyone I work with ignored NDA's and laws. I will not do so because I can see from these comments that I simply live amongst a corrupt culture. Very sad to know.
    – user107558
    Commented Aug 14, 2019 at 13:13
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    As a parallel, I work in an industry where it is very common to get drunk in the workplace. The commonness of it does not stop a portion of people facing consequences for it, ranging from inconsequential to severe. Never once has the argument "Everyone else is doing it, so why can't we" ever made the situation better.
    – Summer
    Commented Aug 14, 2019 at 14:27
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    Keep in mind that your new employer might not be too impressed if you would do this b/c if the data might be traced back to your old company, old company can sue them out of existence. Also this shows that when you would leave new company you can pull the same trick on them. They might even try to play with you and make you a bust as Pepsi did few years ago thehustle.co/coca-cola-stolen-recipe
    – AlexanderM
    Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 0:38

5 Answers 5


But it is so commonplace, I wonder is it okay?

This is a completely wrong action, and not okay in any way.

The only possible reasons that your coworkers have been able to get away with this behavior is that either their organization is not following proper ethical conduct, or the organization is not able to enforce the policies properly.

This kind of stealing of trade secrets is a cause for firing in most work environments (both existing and the fresh employer) and can get you involved in serious litigation based on how aggressively companies want to protect their IP (including engineering designs).

Moreover, its not just the static designs - if the spreadsheets contain any numbers related to your previous firm that it deems confidential, and that you carry to the next organization, you are opening yourself up to further serious charges of corporate espionage, and if this data is found on a property owned by your next company, you are opening them up for litigation as well.

For example, consider these news items - Item 1, Item - 2, Item - 3, where companies have accused past employees of being in the wrong for reasons such as the ones you mention, and have begun litigations.

  • Those examples show how common it is, and that only a few get caught. I 100% agree it is wrong, and will not take anything when I switch jobs. Thank you
    – user107558
    Commented Aug 14, 2019 at 19:24
  • @RR2 Glad to hear that. Please do accept any of the answers here by ticking the tick mark next to the one you find most useful. Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 5:21

No. It is not OK

I am assuming we're not talking about your own know-how and methods (ie your own toolkit) but rather the companies know-how and intellectual property.

You need to have a very careful read of this and decide if it is worth the risk.

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    Not worth the risk. If my future employer expects the usual bag of tricks with my transition, I'll point out the ethics. Here's hoping my new supervisor has good ethics.
    – user107558
    Commented Aug 14, 2019 at 19:26

Stealing company documents (or any other company property) is just that, STEALING.

Not only can it get you in trouble with your (by then former) employer for breaking NDAs, document procedures, secrecy acts, or whatever else the company has in place that you signed off on to impress on you to not do that (and every company I ever worked for had such), they might also go to the police and press criminal charges against you.

In fact, depending on the documents involved and where you are located they may well be legally required to report such theft to authorities.

And that includes any and all documents you prepared yourself for your employer, those too do NOT belong to you but to the company, and should be deleted from any private storage media before you leave your job (if you were allowed to have them on private storage media in the first place, not all companies allow that).

Just because you think it's commonplace (it isn't, at least not here, people here have proper work ethics and wouldn't dream of stealing) doesn't make it ok.

  • I understand fully. Thank you. Coworkers usually brag about what they had, but I see this is totally not good.
    – user107558
    Commented Aug 14, 2019 at 19:27

What is the classification of those documents?

Your company should have an information security policy describing the different levels of confidentiality used within the organization.

If they are classified as public, then you can use them.

If they are classified as internal, customer-only, confidential, secret or any other classification that means sharing of the documents is restricted, you may not.

If there is no formal information security policy or classification, you should assume that all documents are for internal use only unless clearly designated otherwise.

What other people have done with regards to their agreements with their previous employers is irrelevant. You have entered into an employment agreement with your current employer, and that includes your following the rules and policies within that organisation - and, at the very least, not stealing.

  • I'm sure there are the policies you describe. I will be deleting all the files on usbs and following the rules. I am glad this forum is filled with ethical persons. Helps me correct my thinking that had gone awry working in America.
    – user107558
    Commented Aug 14, 2019 at 19:29

Very often new hires come in with go-by documents and notebooks from their previous employers

Is your boss aware of this? How do they react (because anything short of forbidding it is a recipe for disaster)?

Previous answers have already told you that this is wrong/a bad idea/theft.

I suspect that anyone who even has to ask this question won't listen to good advice, so here's something to protect your own self interest and hopefully persuade you to do the decent thing:

What happens if your next employer is honest? If you are lucky they will simply fire you, without informing your current employer of your theft of their intellectual property. Read that back a few times and let us know what you decide to do.

  • Bosses love it when new hires bring examples from their old employer. They appreciate the time savings, especially if it is from a more advanced competitor. I used to argue this was wrong, but after years of seeing it happen, I thought it was a systemic problem or simply acceptable, even desirable.
    – user107558
    Commented Aug 14, 2019 at 19:22
  • I honestly find that difficult to believe. Can you provide a location for context?
    – Mawg
    Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 6:30
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    @RR2 Those bosses have no brain. If a new employee brings stuff from their previous employer, then they would bring the stuff to the next employer when they leave.
    – Nobody
    Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 8:57