Fighting Back: Identifying Risks Posed by an Angry Current or Former Employee

Something lost is always in the last place you look (by definition).  It can also sometimes be in the first.

Although technology has made it possible for outsiders to manipulate and infiltrate your company’s systems and obtain confidential and trade secret information in novel and subtle ways, a lingering, persistent threat to a company’s confidential information and trade secret comes from unhappy employees, both during the time of their employ and after separation.

While perhaps obvious, an employee that is struggling to get along, who is in open conflict with his or her co-workers or management, or is otherwise clearly dissatisfied with the company may pose a significant—and ongoing—risk to the company (although such an employee may simply be abrasive or irritable or going through a hard time personally with no intention of stealing trade secrets).

This risk was highlighted by the recent announcement that Thomas Rukavina, an apparently disgruntled former PPG Industries employee, has been charged under 18 U.S.C. § 1832 with stealing PPG’s trade secrets in an effort to sell them to, and gain employment with, J.T.M.G. Co., a glass manufacturing company based in Jiangsu, China.

As the affidavit in support of the criminal complaint alleges, Rukavina had retired from PPG in mid-2012 under apparently strained circumstances.  In an early communication with J.T.M.G., he allegedly complained that he “was forced out,” and said that he was “forced to sign . . . documents” requiring him to keep PPG’s technology confidential and agreeing that “I would not sue.”

Although he acknowledged that PPG was willing to pay him more than five times what it otherwise would have had he not signed the agreement, Rukavina apparently felt entitled to more: “[I]f you followed these documents as written you could never work again. . . . If PPG owns my brain for life then they should pay me 2 million per year to keep it!!  I think I made my point!!”  Almost a year after that, Rukavina allegedly asked J.T.M.G. for a signing bonus of $80,000, and offered in return “access to all of PPG technology since 1947!!”

Rukavina apparently attempted to make good on that offer, allegedly providing documents to J.T.M.G. detailing designs for a new product worth millions of dollars, and the first of its kind PPG had developed in 50 years.  He also allegedly offered access to confidential and proprietary information worth hundreds of millions of dollars to PPG.  PPG appears to have learned of Rukavina’s work with the Chinese manufacturer after J.T.M.G. contacted one of PPG’s subcontractors about purchasing molds based on PPG’s designs and specifications.

While the affidavit naturally does not address at all whether Rukavina expressed his frustration with to his employer or his employer was even aware of his frustration, the allegations suggest considerations companies may wish to keep in mind to avoid a similar situation.

First, it is important to implement the sorts of general security measures that this blog frequently recommends, and, from the affidavit, it appears that the company did take such steps, including marking material as confidential and proprietary and restricting access only to those who needed to work with it.

Beyond those steps, though, it is important to recognize that today’s productive member of the team may be tomorrow’s office nightmare.  Such a transformation could result from changing work demands, shifts in personnel—or could have nothing to do with work at all.  Whatever the cause, when a company becomes aware that an employee has become generally dissatisfied, querulous with colleagues, or antagonistic toward the company and its mission, it is likely a good idea for the company—in addition to learning about the cause of and identifying solutions for the employee’s dissatisfaction—to check up to see whether the employee had recently exhibited any unusual patterns of behavior in connection with management of and access to confidential information.  As part of that check-up, it would likely behoove the company to identify, if possible, what information the employee may possess based on prior access (including during the happy times), such that it can better anticipate any issue that may develop down the road.