Non-Competes Are Out of Control

A recent New York Times article discusses the fact that employers are feeling increasingly free to abuse non-competes and force all types of employees, from camp counselors to hairdressers, to agree to them in order to keep their jobs. The article notes:

Noncompete clauses are now appearing in far-ranging fields beyond the worlds of technology, sales and corporations with tightly held secrets, where the curbs have traditionally been used. From event planners to chefs to investment fund managers to yoga instructors, employees are increasingly required to sign agreements that prohibit them from working for a company’s rivals.

The United States has a patchwork of rules on noncompetes. Only California and North Dakota ban them, while states like Texas and Florida place few limits on them. When these cases wind up in court, judges often cut back the time restraints if they’re viewed as unreasonable, such as lasting five years or longer.

As noted in the article and by Rob Radcliff in his blog post on the subject this week, Texas employers have great leeway in how they use noncompete agreements. As a result, noncompete abuse has come to be seen as just a normal business practice in the state.  Radcliff writes:

The reason behind non-competes appearing in more industries and occupations is because there is no downside for an employer to insist on such a covenant.  First off, a Texas employer can include and insist on a non-compete or non-solicit and then choose not to enforce it.  So the employer gets the benefit of intimidating or at least making an employee think twice about moving to a competitor but then never sue.  The employer could also send the former employee and their new employer some type of demand letter letter and force some type of dialogue or resolution.  Basically, the employer can us the threat of enforcing the non-compete without having a court every construe its terms or determine whether it is actually enforceable.

Why don’t more employees challenge non-compete in court?  The reason is simple – $$$$$.  Most employees don’t want to and can’t fund litigation to find out if there non-compete is enforceable.

Unfortunately what we have seen in Texas is that noncompetes have become the tool of choice for employers to attempt to restrict fair competition and suppress employee mobility. But Texas isn't alone in this regard and now corporate overreaching is starting to create a backlash among the public and state legislatures in many states.  California and North Dakota already ban noncompetes altogether. Reform efforts are currently underway to ban or restrict the abuse of noncompetes in several states, including Oregon, Colorado, and Massachusetts. (We recently wrote about the Massachusetts effort here.)

I, for one, support this trend and hope that all states move to ban the fundamentally un-American practice of requiring an employee to give up his or her right to work in the future in return for an at-will job. At the very least they should be scaled back to apply only to the highest level of employees or those employees who truly have access to secret recipes or true trade secrets (no your rolodex does not qualify).  Current they are (at least in Texas) out of control and damaging to both employees and to businesses’ ability to find quality employees in many fields.