General Question

BarnacleBill's avatar

Can my employer require me to document what I know?

Asked by BarnacleBill (16083points) September 16th, 2010

I am working on a large, complicated project that several teams have tried to complete in the past, and it was shelved because of the complexity. I have, though a lot of hard work, long hours, and what must be a bizarre form of intellect have figured out how how to do what others have not been able to do. I have not been compensated for this accomplishment above and beyond my regular salary, nor do I really expect to be, even though the work is not what I was hired to do.

In the course of getting the project to work, I learned a lot about our company systems, not from work process but from a logic process. I pretty much had to figure out how things worked in order to my project work. What I know about the systems exists in my head and in thousands of e-mails to my manager and coworkers.

Can the company (not my direct manager or area) require me to document what I know about the systems and how I arrived at the understanding that I have? It would seem to not be in my own best interest to do so, as there are projects coming up that would require my knowledge in order to be successful. A lot of what makes the knowledge different is not so much what I know, but the thought process that I follow to arrive at the conclusions and the way I look at the work we do.

If I document what I know, then I am potentially signing away intellectual capital that I have, which is a leveraging point for a different role and more money. I don’t have a contract with the company. I understand that what I know or do on work time is proprietary to my employer, and how I did my assigned project is documented. What’s not documented is all the extra work, insights, how I figured things out. Can they make me document these things?

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19 Answers

MrItty's avatar

Of course they can. They’re your employer. They can give you any tasks even vaguely related to your job they want. Of course, if you choose not to, the worst they can do is fire you.

As for “signing away intelectual capital that <you> have”, you DON’T have any intellectual capital. Legally, everything you learned and worked on while employed by that company is THEIR intellectual property, not yours. And if you were to try to take that knowledge anywhere else in an attempt to harm the company, they would likely sue you, and win.

Again, your options are to do the job they give you, quit, or get fired.

wundayatta's avatar

Do they know these concepts exist? I just don’t understand how you could document a way of thinking.

If you want to use this as a lever to increase your compensation, the time to do that is before you give any of it away. I wouldn’t put it as blackmail, just ask for a raise because of the good work you’ve done.

If you get the raise, you can document as much as they want. It seems to me it won’t do them much good, anyway. You can’t document creativity, can you?

iamthemob's avatar

Even if it is intellectual property, most things that are created during while working for an employer (especially if the relationship is contractual) is considered the property of the employer. And because this is a description of company processes, it’s even a bit more removed.

I would think this is an opportunity. Just make sure your name is all over it, it’s pretty, and that you show as many people as is feasible in order to not upset the “powers that be.”

zzc's avatar

Oooooh, I love behind the scenes things, what it takes to make it all happen! I think that you are so smart to realize what you have. How can they make you document your thought process, h-mmmm? I am a nurse, so not a good resource for the info. you seek. . . .but it seems like how your mind works, is synonymous with you, and you are your own product, and that it’s nebulous enough that, ” it can’t be documented!” I will be interested to see what people say. Good question! Good for you!

zzc's avatar

It seems, to me, that you could just become one of those really valuable employees that they say, “He is so talented in figuring things out…..project come to a standstill?....give it to Bill, or…. let Bill take a look at it!”

CyanoticWasp's avatar

“The company” as a vague and nebulous “them” can’t and won’t do a damned thing. That’s why you have the screwed up processes that you’ve had to learn about, because apparently no one has taken ownership and responsibility for them. Some “one” has to want this, has to direct you to do it, and has to read the result to get anything out of it. “The company” never will do any of those things. “It” won’t issue a directive or command; “it” won’t supervise, vet and correct, and “it” won’t get anything out of your effort. “It” doesn’t have a brain or a hand in this.

And now that “the company” seems to want to hand itself to you on a silver platter, if only you will tell “it” what you know about it, you don’t want ownership of it, either. It sounds like a hell of a place to work. I’ll never complain about my stinking job again. We have screwed-up policies and managers, too, but we know exactly who they are, and we can sometimes even negotiate with them to improve things.

BarnacleBill's avatar

@MrItty, I have no intention of taking proprietary information anywhere. But what I have learned how to do is to sit in the space between IT and business, how to look at a business process and find what doesn’t work and what it will take to make it work, and how to determine if the systems that support the business configured correctly. The “parts” of what I’ve done aren’t original, but how I’ve applied them, are. I feel I am entitled to own how I approach a problem.

@wundayatta, they do know that I have managed to do something that was thought to be impossible. And probably the single-most unique thing that I’ve done is break down the project into separate smaller projects, and work on them simultaneously. I have hundreds of visio diagrams out there that are reconfigurations of the project. I’ve taken the time to explain my end result to our IT resources, creating project packets for them that explain the purpose of what I’m trying to do, rather than just giving work orders. I’ve repurposed things features and characteristics of things…“If we can do this, then how can we take that and do this instead?” Really what’s made it work is asking good questions, and lots of testing of concepts. I’ve tried to focus on being correct.

@CyanoticWasp, the one thing I have learned is that management has no idea how they have played a hand in creating the mess our systems are in. Most of the mess has come about because someone has said, “I want you to do X by 3 months from now.” The infrastructure didn’t support the request, but in order to meet the date a workaround was created, and because the work around worked, no budget was ever assigned to make the system work correctly on its own.

tinyfaery's avatar

Just tell them it’s not something that you can write down succinctly. They can’t physically make you do it.

john65pennington's avatar

If you are on the clock and they are paying your salary, then yes, that(your)information is detrimental to their operation. each company has some secrets to a degree. your ability to understand and solve a major problem for your employer is great. but, this information was arrived and solved on their time and the salary they are paying you. fit into your work program and do not be a problem starter.

BarnacleBill's avatar

@john65pennington, but I have done everything that they’ve asked me to do, and more. I work 60 – 70 hours a week, and am compensated for 40 hours. I am losing vacation days because I cannot take them, and I’m not paid for them. I wasn’t hired because I understand IT processes, process improvement, databases, information processing, etc. I was hired because I have a communications/graphics background. I have more than earned the money they pay me. This is something extra that came about as a residual of doing the work that was asked to do; in order to meet my project goals, I had to learn about something above and beyond my project, because there were areas in the company that told me they didn’t have resources to help me with my assigned project.

What is wrong with maximizing what I know? I was told that the reason why another project was shelved several times was because no one on the project team understood how to get at what was really needed. Why should I document that, and hand it to someone else to do the work, and perhaps get a bonus? My manager got a bonus for my project being completed. I did not. I got a certificate to hang in my cube, and got passed over on work I really wanted to do because I was “needed” on the project, and couldn’t be spared.

tinyfaery's avatar

Maybe you should renegotiate your job position and salary.

zenvelo's avatar

documenting your knowledge of the system, including flow charts, will help you when discussing changes with others; will help you demonstrate your knowledge of how klugey the system is, and will show that with your understanding and ability to figure it out that you can lead and manage a team.

92elements's avatar

Absolutely Not they cannot ask you to document your knowledge and this you should protect above all else. this is your skills and you should be paid for this they are paranoid that you will be head hunted after this project you have value to them use it to your advantage and dont let them exploit you. once they have this document they will not give you anything and you probably deserve more from them. at the end of the day business has no morals

iamthemob's avatar

If you say you are paid for 40 hours but working 60–70, how is that? What is the pay structure….

Also, I understand that you don’t want them to have a document that shows what you did when that document could be used instead of you on the upcoming projects. However, realize that (1) the company is your employer, if it’s reasonable do it, (2) you can’t be in several places at once, and the company may need the document if there are simultaneous things that need to happen, (3) they may use you and the document in conjunction to train others on how these systems work (or you can try to write it in this manner), (4) the document DOCUMENTS your value to the company, and creates a paper trail of such value, and will be helpful if you feel like you were terminated because you created efficiencies.

Granted, it would be difficult to sue a company because they fired you because you created something efficient that it no longer made you necessary – however, this is really stupid as it is against the company interest. Just do it smartly so you CYA.

BarnacleBill's avatar

@iamthemob, when you are salaried, you are paid for a 40 hour work week, but the expectation is that you work whatever it takes to get the work assigned to completed. The “theory” is that salaried individuals earn more than hourly individuals, but I have never seen it work out that way. An added plus of salaried is that if you have to take off to go to a doctor’s appointment, you just go. You are not docked for being out of the office for a few hours.

iamthemob's avatar


No, that I understood – but then that’s what you get into with salary. You expect that you’re going to be working a lot more than 40 some weeks, and some weeks where you might not be needed the full time, and in return you get the consistent pay. In the end, I agree that you don’t really end up making as much per hour, but you’re guaranteed to make money (they can’t save money by cutting your hours, etc.).

The problem here is that the information you gained is specific to the company. So regardless of whether you think that you’re being overutilized, attempting to leverage that will be obvious to the company, and in the end not useful if you go anywhere else. They’re obviously happy with this work – keep them that way.

zzc's avatar

@zenvelo,I like your take on this. @Bill, you can do as @Z says. They gave you this project,show WHAT you figured out, but the HOW, is you. What you figured out, is your value to the co., good on your resum; HOW you figured it out, is your worth. I like your original thinking, in your question, and@Z’s thinking. That’s how I vote!! Oh, and
@wundayatta‘s thinking too!. . . and@92!!

BarnacleBill's avatar

Thank you all for your help. I’m going to put together a deck with all the visios, and a hand-out sheet. I will probably not share it to anyone until I’m assigned to the project team. It will not make sense to a non-systems thinking oriented person anyways.

wundayatta's avatar

If I were you, I’d try to renegotiate my salary right away. I’d use all the arguments you’ve been providing us. Say it. Straight out. You have not been rewarded appropriately for you work and for you contributions. List them. List what would have happened if you hadn’t been there. Tell them you want a significant salary bump, and you also want bonuses or profit sharing to make you want to keep on working so hard.

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