In an earlier post, I listed ten ways businesses can protect their trade secrets. Now, let’s look at one of these in a bit more depth: exit interviews.

An exit interview—i.e., a meeting with an employee who is leaving the company—can be an incredibly effective tool for employers for a wide variety of reasons, and all employers should conduct them whenever possible. For our purposes, let’s focus on how these interviews can be used to protect proprietary information.

When conducting an exit interview with an employee who signed a noncompete or a confidentiality agreement, the exit interview should include a frank reminder of the employee’s obligations. Have the employee sign an acknowledgement of his or her obligations. When the employer is particularly concerned about the employee’s future plans, consider giving the employee a letter from an attorney.

For an employee who has not signed a noncompete or or a confidentiality agreement, the exit interview offers an opportunity to safeguard proprietary information the employee had access to. Make sure that the employee is aware of his or her legal obligations not to disclose any trade secrets. And have the employee sign an acknowledgement that he or she was provided with proprietary information under circumstances that require the information to be kept confidential.

Whenever possible, the interview should explore where the employee will be working next.  If he or she will be working for a competitor or starting a competing business, the company knows that it needs to be on alert. An attorney should be consulted to discuss legal options.

Hopefully, the employer has been keeping an inventory of all company computers, phones, etc. issued to the employee. Have the employee bring these, along with any company documents in their possession, to the exit interview. The employee should also be asked whether he or she has any hard-copy or electronic company documents on a personal computer, mobile device, or other storage media.  The acknowledgement discussed above should contain language confirming that the employee has returned all such documents and destroyed any electronic copies.

Finally, be sure to get a phone number and address where the employee can be reached. If it later becomes necessary to communicate with or file a lawsuit against the former employee, this information is critical.

If anyone has additional suggestions for using exit interviews to protect proprietary information, feel free to discuss in the comments.

8 Comments

  1. Good advice. If your other employees are at risk, also worthwhile asking if the departing employee has had discussions with co-workers and getting that flushed out.

    1. Good point, Peter. Along the same lines, it’s important to remain aware of close relationships between the departing employee and other employees. If there are close friendships, it’s always possible that the remaining employees could later give the former employee proprietary information, whether intentionally or inadvertently.

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