It’s getting pretty rough out there for employers who want to control their employees’ behavior. Think back to March 2020, when the pandemic was just beginning and we took a look at this new phenomenon of widespread remote work. We imagined managers wistfully recalling the Renaissance, when artisans could be imprisoned, or even threatened with death, to make sure they didn’t breach confidence. Well, in modern times at least, companies can use noncompete agreements with departing employees to avoid messy and unpredictable litigation over trade secrets.
Maybe not for long. As we learned last month, the FTC is on the warpath about noncompetes, and it may not be long before the entire country is forced to emulate California and just do without. Whatever happens with the FTC proposal, it’s pretty clear that noncompetes are also under attack by the states, where new laws limit their effectiveness.
So, it’s probably wise to at least prepare ourselves for a world in which noncompete agreements, at least for the rank and file, are forbidden. Welcome to sunny California, where we’ve been living under that regime since 1872, thanks to a statute that prohibits contracts “by which anyone is restrained from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business of any kind.” When you can’t prevent staff from jumping to the competition, what does a business have to do to maintain control over its trade secrets?
We’ll get to that, but first let’s console ourselves with the recognition that maybe life without noncompetes wouldn’t be so bad. First, noncompete agreements are not a perfect solution for protecting a company’s confidential information. Where they are allowed, courts often limit coverage to what is “reasonable” in duration, geography and subject matter, to the minimum required to protect the company’s interest. And some courts require the employer to continue to pay salary during the noncompete period, while the former employee prepares plans to open a competing business the day that the restriction expires.
Second, noncompete agreements can introduce resentment and contention into the company’s relationship with its workforce. This can have the perverse effect of increasing risk to confidential information, as employees search for workarounds to evade legal restraints. Third, administering a system in which these agreements have varying effect in individual states or foreign countries can be a nightmare for the HR department. And fourth, too-heavy reliance on noncompetes can lead the company to neglect the important task of managing the confidential relationship (more on that below).
In California, we don’t have to worry about those issues, and some would say that the state has done pretty well, creating the world’s fourth largest economy, largely resulting from innovation produced by Silicon Valley. True, there is general recognition that a lot of valuable information is compromised through the free movement of high-level managers and engineers (the euphemism applied to that loss is “spillover effects”). Still, the general assumption is that the resulting information flows provide a rising tide that lifts all boats. Lest we forget, California also leads the nation in trade secret litigation, which should come as no surprise – take away noncompete agreements and a lawsuit may be your only ultimate tool.
Well, at least we can rely on the old standby of the employee non-disclosure agreement (NDA), or Confidentiality Agreement. Sorry, but I have a bit of bad news on that front. As we know, the FTC has proposed a “functional test” for banning NDAs that are the equivalent of a noncompete because the effect is to block the employee’s ability to find competitive employment. But the FTC didn’t pluck this idea out of thin air, and even if its proposed rule never becomes law, we’re still going to have to deal with the risk that a “garden variety” confidentiality agreement could be struck down, or even made the basis of a claim that the company is engaged in unfair competition.
How can this be? Employee NDAs are built on the noncontroversial assumption that the law already implies an obligation of confidentiality when an employee is entrusted with sensitive information. The contract simply reinforces that notion, providing notice and helping to demonstrate that the company has exercised “reasonable efforts” to protect its trade secrets, a required showing in any lawsuit to enforce its rights.
The problem stems from how companies define the information that employees are required to maintain in confidence after they leave. Naturally, these definitions are a bit broad and vague, because at the outset of the relationship it’s impossible to know exactly what secrets the employee will be exposed to. But some companies (rather, their lawyers) have decided that it’s a good idea to expand the scope of the NDA in ways that actually do have much of the effect of a noncompete. Two cases illustrate the riskiness of this approach.
In the first one, TLS Management v. Rodriguez, the employee worked for a tax planning and consulting firm, leaving to engage in his own tax practice. The employer sued to enforce his NDA, which covered “all information . . . regarding TLS business methods . . . any other information provided to” the employee, and “any other information” he might learn during employment. The only exception was for information disclosed by TLS to the general public. The court struck down the agreement because it extended to the employee’s “general knowledge” and other information that was publicly available.
More recently, a California appellate court, in Brown v. TGS Management, reversed an arbitrator’s decision enforcing an employee NDA that similarly defined “confidential information” to include anything “used or usable in, or originated, developed or acquired for use in, or about or relating to” the employer’s business. The exceptions provided in the contract were so narrow (for example, information previously known to the employee “as evidenced by Employee’s written records”) that the court saw them as proof that the NDA was designed to block legitimate competition.
What should companies do to preserve the utility of confidentiality agreements and avoid their being interpreted as noncompetes? First, look carefully at the definition of covered “Confidential Information” and make sure coverage is directed at information of the company or its customers that deserves the label because it provides some sort of commercial advantage. Second, clarify the definition with exceptions that acknowledge the employee’s control over their own skill and general knowledge. Third, include language that allows a judge, when enforcing the agreement, to adjust its restrictions as necessary to make it reasonable (sometimes called “blue penciling”).
But these mechanics of drafting the NDA are only a part of the effort. While they may be necessary to avoid reclassification as a noncompete, they are not sufficient to establish and maintain control over your trade secrets. Having the new employee sign a restrictive contract is just an initial step in managing the relationship for clarity and understanding about confidentiality.
Whatever is in your contract, you will be entrusting this individual, perhaps over many years, with access to some of your most competitively sensitive information. The contract alone can’t bear the weight of that continuing responsibility when the employee leaves. The perfect NDA will not help you much if by that time you have not communicated well and frequently what that sensitive information is, and how you expect your employees to behave to protect it.
In between the contract at onboarding and the exit interview at departure is where the trust-building happens. Although “Confidential Information” can’t be defined with specificity in the NDA, the company can, through thoughtful training and guidance, help the employee to understand what sort of secrets are most important to the business. That understanding, consistently reinforced, becomes the foundation for a “culture of confidentiality” in which employees who leave are prepared to do what’s right, rather than argue over the wording of their NDA.
We can find surveys showing employees willing to share their employer’s confidential information – but this usually results from misunderstanding and mixed signals, not malicious intent. So, the ultimate solution to reduce risk to a company’s information assets is in nurturing the relationships it forms with those who have access. If you can’t use noncompete agreements, you also can’t file a trade secret misappropriation lawsuit against every departing employee. Your primary protection comes instead from their clear appreciation of the trust that has been placed in them.