When hiring an employee away from a competitor, one of the last things a company wants is to be embroiled in litigation with that competitor over accusations that it hired the employee for the purpose of stealing that competitor’s trade secrets. Consequently, the process of “on-boarding” a new employee — taking steps to make sure that the employee is properly and lawfully brought aboard a company to minimize risk of litigation by the former employer — is proving to be an increasingly important one and needs to be part of every trade secret lawyer, in-house lawyer and HR administrator’s trade secrets toolkit.
On-boarding is becoming a bigger and bigger issue, and was a topic of much discussion at the recent AIPLA Trade Secret Summit, as both in-house counsel and outside counsel noted that on-boarding was increasing as a part of their practice (I have noticed an uptick in this area as well in my practice this year). There have also been a number of recent articles on the topic of on-boarding (Seyfarth Shaw has two entertaining YouTube videos on best and worst on-boarding practices and Karin McGinnis wrote a fine post last month for Corporate Counsel).
Why this increase in concern over on-boarding? One reason is an improving economy that is in turn causing companies to increase their hiring from the ranks of their competitors. Another factor is the increase in non-compete and trade secret litigation generally, and companies’ growing awareness of the risks of that litigation if they do not manage their hiring process correctly.
The process of on-boarding can be a challenging and delicate one. There are potential conflicts for the unwary, as the interests of the new employee and the new employer may not always be aligned and separate counsel may be required. In addition, those challenges are compounded by the prevalence of ESI, BYOD and other workplace technologies that serve to complicate the transition process. In short, in any important employee transition, in-house counsel, and frequently outside counsel, now need to be involved.
Despite these potential complexities, I believe there are five basic Golden Rules to remember. I will cover the first two Golden Rules today and wrap up with the remaining three rules tomorrow:
Rule No. 1: Ask for and Review All Employment Agreements. This the first and most important of the Golden Rules, because without it, you are almost certainly flying blind in the hiring process. Courts will no longer tolerate an employer turning a blind eye to an agreement and will hold it accountable if there is any trade secret misappropriation or improper breach of a restrictive covenant. Courts expect a new employer to conduct some analysis of the agreement and to have taken steps to protect the legitimate business interests of the former employer (to be addressed in tomorrow’s post). You can’t protect those interests if you don’t know what the former employer and new employee agreed to during their relationship.
Don’t confine your analysis to the most recent employment agreement as there may be previous ones that come into play if the last one is defective or unenforceable for some reason. And if you are concerned about confidentiality, arrange for counsel for the employee who can at least review it and advise the employee (be mindful of conflicts though). A prospective employee’s claim that he does not remember any agreement or does not have a copy should be a red flag and, and perhaps even grounds for not hiring him/her.
Once you have and review the employee’s agreement, your company may decide that the employee is still worth pursuing because the non-compete is too broad or unfair, or because you conclude that you can hire the person and still manage to protect the legitimate interests of a competitor (tomorrow’s post). Given the increasing judicial ambivalence to restrictive covenants, that may be a risk worth taking. However, you cannot take any reasoned approach until you know what issues are presented under that agreement.
Rule No. 2: Leave All Former Employer’s Trade Secrets Behind. It would be nice if you had a special hermetically-sealed chamber through which you could direct the new employee so that he/she could emerge on the first day of work completely sanitized of all his/her previous employer’s trade secrets. Until that technology is available, however, a new employer has to clearly and emphatically prohibit the prospective employee from using or bringing his previous employer’s trade secrets with him/her. This means copies of all customer lists, contact information, marketing and business strategies and other potentially proprietary information of the previous employer need to be returned to the former employer before the employee transitions.
Of course, it is not that simple anymore in the era of BYOD and the 24/7 work cycle. The reality is that we all work at home and that frequently digital or paper copies of confidential information sometimes make their way into personal devices or inadvertently find their way into a home office desk drawer. Consequently, not only should an employer instruct the new employee to leave everything behind but it should remind him/her to double-check personal devices and their desks and files at home. Finally, an employer needs to reinforce the consequences that might ensue (suspension, termination, etc.) should the employee bring or attempt to use his or her employer’s trade secrets. All of this should be in writing and preferably a term in the new employee’s agreement. This agreement will not only protect an employer but will also provide cover to the new employee in any subsequent litigation because it will be proof of the steps taken to protect the trade secrets of the former employer.
I remember an in-house speaker emphasizing that one of his former bosses used to send a polite but direct letter to each new employee that told them to leave everything behind because the confidential information of the competitor would no longer be needed. I thought this approach, a simple letter that only concerned this subject, was a very effective way of reinforcing the importance of a culture of integrity and responsibility in the trade secrets context. This approach may be particularly useful when hiring researchers, coders or others who might be involved in the development of products for a competitor.
Of course, the new employer and former employee may face a claim of inevitable disclosure — i.e., that the employee simply cannot be trusted to not use or disclose those trade secrets in a competitive setting. However, as I have written before, courts have increasingly viewed this doctrine with disfavor and are requiring some evidence of misconduct before they are willing to enjoin an otherwise proper hire from going forward.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post which will cover Golden Rules 3, 4 and 5.