Trade-secret misappropriation cases often involve bad actors who deliberately steal trade secrets. But perhaps just as frequently, trade-secrets are misappropriated by people who simply don’t know better. Many don’t even understand what a trade secret is, let alone that there are laws or other obligations prohibiting inappropriate use or disclosure of trade secrets.
I’ve personally seen this happen over and over. An employee leaves one company to join another in the same industry. He takes many of the documents he created at his old job. These documents contain trade secrets. In his mind, they are his documents. He created them, after all! And at his new job, he uses those documents on behalf of his new employer.
Now both companies have a problem. The former employer’s trade secrets are in a competitor’s hands. And the new employer has unwittingly exposed itself to significant liability.
Both companies are to blame for their problems. The first company did not educate its employees about their responsibilities and legal obligations regarding trade secrets and proprietary information, both while working for the company and after they leave. The second company failed to make sure that the new employee did not bring his prior employer’s trade secrets with him.
There are three primary tools for preventing this situation: contracts, training, and exit/intake interviews. Employees with access to proprietary information should sign a non-disclosure agreement that requires them to keep the information confidential. The agreement should provide that all information belongs to the company even if created by the employee, and must be returned upon termination of employment. And the contract should acknowledge that the employee is not bringing any proprietary info or trade secrets from her prior job.
But employees too often don’t read contracts before signing them. That’s where training comes in. During the on-boarding process, and periodically thereafter, use training sessions to reiterate your trade-secret policy.
Finally, use exit interviews to again instruct the departing employee about his post-employment obligations. Consider having him sign an acknowledgement that he has returned all info and is aware of these obligations. When hiring a new employee, talk with them up front about what info they have from their prior employer. Be sure to consult with an attorney if that discussion raises concerns.
I really believe that many misappropriation cases can be avoided by simply making sure that employees understand these issues. Too often, they do not.