There are many misconceptions and assumptions regarding the use and effectiveness of noncompete agreements. This is not too surprising considering that judicial enforcement of these agreements is very fact-intensive and situation-specific. There are no bright-line rules to help business owners determine whether a noncompete agreement will be enforceable, so it can be challenging to craft one that will provide maximum protection without being vulnerable to a challenge in court.
Common Pitfalls with Noncompete Agreements
- Failing to properly identify what is actually being protected. One pitfall that business owners face is that they fail to put much, if any, time or effort into evaluating what legitimate business interest they are specifically trying to protect when asking their employees to sign a noncompete agreement. These agreements are often implemented for the simple reason that it seems like a good business practice from a human resources perspective. However, a deeper dive into the desired protections of these agreements is critical to ensure their effectiveness and enforceability.
- Using a noncompete agreement when nonsolicitation is desired. Similarly, executives may assume that they need to use a noncompete agreement, when in reality they need a nonsolicitation agreement (restricting someone from taking customers, employees, etc.) or a confidentiality agreement (restricting someone from using trade secrets or other information). Business owners and managers should also remember that just because a noncompete agreement may have fit the company’s needs and business activities two or three years ago, this does not mean that such an agreement is still a good fit for the business today.
Issues to Consider when Requiring Employees or Contractors to Sign a Noncompete Agreement
If you want to add another layer of protection to your business by implementing a noncompete agreement, there are a few questions you should ask as you get started:
- Is the obligation to sign the noncompete coupled with some type of valid consideration?
- Could the employee or contractor make a valid claim that you negotiated the noncompete in bad faith?
- Does your company have a legitimate business interest that the noncompete is attempting to protect?
- Is the duration and geographic limitation of the noncompete reasonable to protect the company’s legitimate business interests?
- Could the terms or conditions of the noncompete be viewed as being against public policy?
Options Available to Enforce a Noncompete Agreement
Enforceability of a noncompete can vary from state to state. This can be particularly problematic for larger companies with employees or contractors throughout the country. However, even Washington law, which only allows noncompete agreements in certain circumstances (RCW 49.62), recognizes the need to protect a company’s trade secrets and other confidential information through the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (RCW 19.108 et. al.). Typical enforcement options include a lawsuit for damages as well as injunctive relief from the court to immediately stop severe damages from violation of the noncompete agreement (often referred to as a temporary restraining order).
Nonlegal Issues to Consider
In determining whether noncompete agreements will be in the best interests of the company, business owners should consider how a noncompete agreement may affect employee morale or loyalty, both as a result of the required execution of the agreement and the enforcement of the agreement. Suing an employee who has quit or been fired might send the wrong message to current employees, even if the lawsuit is pursued for legitimate reasons.
Schedule a meeting with one of our trusted attorneys at NorthStar Law Group P.S. to ensure that you are using the right document for your business protection needs and to navigate the applicable law in your local jurisdiction. We will help you craft a noncompetition agreement that will be upheld by a court and protect the legitimate business interests that you have worked so hard to build. Call our office today to schedule a consultation.