10 things IT pros should do when a relationship ends

When a love affair ends, a few tried-and-true remedies come to mind, but nothing really helps except time. While you're waiting for time to work its healing magic, however, there are a few practical things you really do need to do -- particularly if you are an IT professional.

By Donna C. Kline

When a love affair ends, a few tried-and-true remedies come to mind: eating a whole box of chocolates while watching a 1940s tear jerker, going out with your best buddy and drowning your sorrows (or at least replacing them with a headache), burning every stupid memento of your ex, and so on. None of these actually mends a broken heart, of course, but then not much does, except time. And while you're waiting for time to work its healing magic, there are a few practical things you really need to do -- particularly if you are an IT professional.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Change your passwords at work, if possible

You may feel confident that you never disclosed a password to your Former Significant Other (FOSO, for now). However, being mistaken in your trust can damage your career and possibly cost you your job.

It pays to be cautious even if your ex is computer illiterate. Some paranoia is definitely warranted if he or she is an IT person, too. Most of us give in to the temptation to use one password for several purposes, so the one time that you asked your FOSO to check your e-mail may have opened more doors than you planned.

Be sure to follow any company policies about password changes.

#2: Repair any security breaches you have created

If you have any reason to think that an angry FOSO could gain access to other people's data, you need to take immediate action. He or she may be a trustworthy, responsible person who would never do anything malicious with that access. However, you don't have the right to take chances with sensitive information belonging to others.

If you are an IT employee, some tact may be advisable. If you did let your ex have access to company data, whether accidently or on purpose, you should give some thought as to how (and perhaps whether) you inform your boss about this slip. If you are certain that you can repair any security issues and that no harm has been done, the decision rests with your own sense of integrity and self-preservation.

If you have created a serious security breach, you have a professional (and possibly legal) responsibility to alert the appropriate people.

If you are an independent consultant, your responsibility may be even greater because your clients rely on you to protect their information. In my view, you owe it to them to secure their information instantly (without charge) and to disclose any actual breaches that have occurred.

#3: Change privileges on appropriate programs and systems

If your ex has administrator status on your system, remote access, etc., consider whether that status is still appropriate. This presents a difficult question at work. Your actions need to comply with the company's hierarchy and policies. If you have been dating your boss, he or she may still be entitled to access your computer, in which case you may want to remove any personal information you no longer wish to share. Don't be surprised if your own privileges are altered.

#4: Change passwords on your personal accounts

Okay, okay, it's obvious. However, simple precautions are all too easy to forget when it's your own personal heart that's breaking. Think of all your password-protected places and change them. Here's a few suggestions: blogs, your Web site, job hunting sites, Google, Microsoft Live, PayPal, bank and brokerage accounts, accounting software, e-mail accounts (company and personal), backups (including online), password vaults, online stores (Netflix, Amazon.com, etc.), and auction sites (eBay). Don't forget TechRepublic.

If you have an online business, be sure to secure access to that account immediately.

#5: Be careful about your communications on company computers

The office is not a prudent place to expose your innermost feelings, especially in writing. Keep in mind that your employer probably has access to all files on an office computer.

Company romances can give rise to charges of sexual harassment or discrimination, and e-mails can be damaging evidence in these lawsuits. Angry, sexually explicit, or emotional e-mails can be a personal and professional embarrassment. Revelation of e-mails about an office romance (along with racist, sexist, and politically improper messages) recently forced a district attorney in Texas to withdraw from his reelection campaign.

#6: Resist the temptation to harm your ex's system or data

Erasing a critical file, formatting a hard drive, or introducing a clever virus may seem like a satisfying action when you are burning with rage and jealousy. However, all of these are bad ideas.

First, vicious and destructive actions are (usually) unworthy of a decent person. Second, tampering with computer information can have serious legal consequences. Third, if your action becomes widely known, future employers may be reluctant to hire you for fear that you will wreck similar havoc on their system if you become unhappy at work.

#7: Resolve any business issues between the two of you

If you and your FOSO worked together, especially if you have an IT consulting firm, the two of you need to straighten out any business matters, including any corporate or partnership matters.

Here are a few of the questions to be answered:

  • Will you continue to work together? If not, who will leave?
  • What will you do with clients?
  • Who will handle accounts receivable?
  • Are there unfinished projects or other contractual obligations?
  • Who gets the business name? Phone number? Web site? E-mail address?

If the two of you aren't speaking, you need to decide how to handle your relationship with clients. You may want to send a (tactful and businesslike) e-mail announcing the split, but be sure that you are not violating any contract you had with your ex or the firm. If there is a clause prohibiting you from competing with the business if you leave, you may need to consult an attorney about your rights.

If the split is really getting acrimonious, you may want to secure critical information (such as mailing lists, address books, and accounts receivable) before the meltdown happens. Otherwise, you might find yourself unable to communicate with clients whom you regard as your own.

#8: Retrieve your personal information

If your ex has any of your personal files on his or her computer, try to get permission to retrieve or delete them. At the least, ask your FOSO to erase the data. If there are really embarrassing records (such as videos you wish now had never been made), you may want to write a formal letter asking him or her to destroy them and making clear that you don't want them disseminated in any form. One possible solution is for the two of you to agree to reciprocal destruction of files that each of you has.

If the photos or whatever would genuinely injure or embarrass you if they were disclosed, you may want to consult a lawyer promptly to take whatever legal action may be available. You may or may not have the legal right to prevent your FOSO from posting them on the Web, for example.

#9: Refrain from online nastiness

Online communications can last far longer than the rage that spawned them. Venting your most intimate emotions in writing can be a bad idea, especially on the Web. Someday, your outpourings may embarrass you or the new person in your life, at least if you can be identified as the author. More important, although the exact boundaries of liability for online libel and invasion of privacy aren't settled, nasty remarks about your ex could lead to a lawsuit against you or your company, especially if your unflattering description hurts his or her career.

#10: Resolve any financial issues between the two of you

Longtime couples usually have some financial entanglement. You may need to split everyday stuff, like furniture, DVDs, and china. You should divide and close any joint accounts. Both of you may have the right to withdraw money from a joint account, so you should promptly act to protect your share.

One of the biggest hassles may be your living arrangements. If both of you signed the lease, you may still be responsible for the rent even if you move out. Ditto for other bills such as car notes and joint credit cards.

A change in your love life doesn't change your obligations to your creditors, so you should contact them immediately and work out a resolution, including making clear that you are not liable for future charges by your ex. Be sure to document any agreement about money or ownership in writing and get the person with whom you're dealing to sign it.

If you and your FOSO have a legal relationship (such as marriage, a cohabitation agreement, or a domestic partnership), these probably need to be formally unwound. Otherwise, some obscure legal obligation may hang on long after the real relationship is over.

#11: Make appropriate changes to protect your assets

Finally, take appropriate action to protect your own assets. Change the locks on your doors. Change the PIN on your debit and credit cards. Don't forget to cancel any joint credit cards or lines of credit, unless you and your ex have worked out a different solution.

You may need to change other important documents too, if your FOSO is named in them. You should review (and change as needed) your will, any beneficiary designations (such as on employment benefits, insurance policies, and retirement accounts), and your power of attorney for health care.

Get over it and get on with a happier life

Taking care of all these details will leave you little time to mope. When it's all done, you can settle back with the bonbons, the Scotch, or the late night movie. Better luck next time.

Donna Kline is a lawyer and mediator in Montgomery, TX. She is the author of The Laws of Love: A Legal Guide for Couples, available from Amazon.com and bookstores. For more information, visit http://lawsoflove.com.