In answering this question, it is important to note the differences between “noncompete”, “non-solicitation”, and “company” or “trade secrets” when navigating future opportunities. “Noncompete” simply means that the employee cannot seek work in the same industry by becoming an employee or partner of a competitor.
Note that the “duty of loyalty” exists without any sort of agreement— although it is always better to spell things out to all your workers via your non-disclosures. An organization’s current employees are under a “duty of loyalty” to the organization. Each state defines that duty a bit differently. In general, employees are not permitted to induce current customers, suppliers, or other employees to leave the organization, nor are they allowed to operate a competing business while still employed by the organization. When that duty is breached, the employer may be entitled to collect lost profits, punitive damages, and out-of-pocket costs incurred to train replacements. Offending employees may be forced to forfeit their salaries and to give up any profits they made as a result of the disloyal conduct. Also, courts may issue injunctions forbidding the employees to engage in similar conduct for a specified period. Under the duty of loyalty, the law generally prevents an individual from using trade secrets or proprietary information of a current or former employer to the detriment of that employer.
A trade secret can be any information that derives independent economic value from not being generally known or readily ascertainable. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia have adopted in whole or in part the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA). The UTSA codifies the basic principles of common law trade secret protection and may afford employers protection even in those states, like California, where restrictive covenants are generally not enforceable. The UTSA protects an employer from misappropriation and misuse of actual trade secrets, which are defined as information, including a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, process, drawing, data, or customer list that:
- Derives independent economic value — actual or potential — from not being generally known to or readily ascertainable (by proper means) by other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use.
- Is the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy.
- An employer must take reasonable measures to maintain the confidentiality of trade secrets. In determining whether reasonable steps have been taken, courts balance the costs and benefits on a case-by-case basis. Even states that have not adopted the UTSA generally accord similar protection to trade secrets under the Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 757.
To determine whether a piece of information is a trade secret, states following the Restatement of Torts will generally examine the following six factors:
- The extent to which the information is known outside the business.
- The extent to which it is known by employees and others involved in the business.
- The extent of measures taken by the business to guard the secrecy of the information.
- The value of the information to the business and its competitors.
- The amount of effort or money expended by the business in developing the information.
- The ease or difficulty with which the information could be properly acquired or duplicated by others.