This is the first in a series of posts addressing best practices for protecting trade secrets. I’m starting with employee/independent contractor contracts, which are one of the most important and effective ways to protect proprietary information.
Contracts are critical for multiple reasons. First, they inform your employees of their legal responsibilities. Second, it’s generally easier to prosecute a breach-of-contract claim instead of relying solely on a trade-secrets misappropriation claim. Third, a competitor that hires your former employee may be more likely to cut ties with that employee when presented with a cease-and-desist letter attaching a contract. Finally, requiring these types of agreements can help you win a misappropriation case, since their existence bolsters the argument that you reasonably protected your trade secrets (a prerequisite to establishing a trade secret under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act).
There are three general categories of contractual protections: confidentiality/nondisclosure, nonsolicitation, and noncompete. Remember that the law applicable to these contracts varies widely from state-to-state, so you need to consult with an attorney who can make sure your agreements comply with and will be enforced under the applicable law.
This is the lowest level of contractual protection. It’s also the easiest to implement, since employees are less likely to push back when asked to sign a NDA. From a best-practices perspective, it’s worth at least considering whether to require that all employees sign a NDA. Even low-level employees may have access to some proprietary information. The trick is drafting the language in a way that best defines what precisely needs to be kept confidential. In particular, you need to decide whether to define “confidential information” broadly vs. specifically. Each comes with benefits and risks. Speak with a lawyer who can learn about your unique situation to determine what language best suits your business.
A nonsolicitation agreement prohibits your employee from soliciting some or all of your current or prospective customers and/or employees once she leaves your company, for a certain period of time. These contracts offer an intermediate level protection, more than a NDA but not as much as a noncompete. It’s best to have all employees with access to proprietary customer information, or who have relationships with prospective/actual customers, sign a nonsolicitation agreement. Again, consult with an attorney who can help craft the scope of the restrictions to your company, based on the applicable law.
These agreements offer the highest level of protection, since they prohibit your employee from working for your competitors or in your industry, within a certain area and for a certain amount of time. Recently, there has been media coverage of corporate overuse of noncompete agreements. For example, Jimmy Johns took a lot of heat for having its sandwich makers sign noncompete agreements. This type of practice can turn off a judge.
There’s no question that noncompete agreements can be a powerful tool for protecting your proprietary information. But you should consider only requiring that key employees sign a noncompete agreement. The other contracts above may be sufficient to protect against misappropriation by lower-level employees.
You also need to think about the noncompete’s temporal and geographic scope. Depending on the law in your state, an overbroad agreement may not be enforceable. In Florida, where judges are required to narrow an overbroad agreement, I’ve seen judges soured towards employers that overreached when drafting the agreement. Generally, it’s best to limit the agreement the area in which you can prove you compete. An attorney can work with you to determine the proper scope.
Deciding to require some or all of the above agreements, and having an attorney draft the agreements, is only the first step. Next, you need to make sure the agreements are actually signed and dated. Then, you need to make sure the signed agreements are properly maintained. You would not believe how often companies forget to have an employee sign or date the agreement. Or how often I’ve seen a company struggle to find the signed agreement when it became necessary to enforce it.
The key is to develop a protocol that can be repeated for each new employee. When the decision is made to hire a new employee, a designated person should be responsible for creating a checklist of all documents that she needs to sign. Of course, the checklist may be different for each employee. Either the person who creates the checklist or another designated person needs to be responsible for making sure all items on the list are actually completed. I recommend including on the checklist the signing, dating, and filing of all required contracts. The responsible person should sign the checklist once everything has been completed, and the checklist should be filed along with the signed documents.
If the contracts are to be signed electronically, your IT people need to set up the software so it will not allow a signature unless all mandatory clickwrap “boxes” are checked. If you are old school and the contracts are manually signed, I recommend keeping an electronic copy along with the original.
In future posts, I’ll discuss specific contractual provisions that should be included in these agreements, as well as best practices for contractual protections when dealing with third parties, like vendors, consultants, and joint-venture partners.