Our February article addressed the options available to the multi-state employer attempting to design its non-compete agreements within the “tangled mess” of the various state laws applicable to agreements for employees who reside within those various states. In that article, we advised that unless management has the resources to design, update and manage separate agreements tailored to each applicable state law, the best alternative is to design an “asset protection program” to include as few versions of the agreement as possible, tailoring each version to as many, similar state laws and job categories as possible. In this and subsequent articles, we will dig deeper into the variety of business and state law issues involved in this process.
Initially, employers should identify all employee/independent contractor responsibility levels and titles to be covered by the company’s non-compete agreements and the states in which those employees/contractors reside. Here, it is important to note that most state laws will not support the enforcement of a non-compete covenant unless the employer has a material, protectable interest supporting its post-employment non-compete restrictions. Translated, this means that most state laws will not support the enforcement of non-compete or even customer non-solicitation covenants signed by non-supervisory, non-sales and non-managerial employees. So, don’t expect to enforce a non-compete or non-solicitation covenant when it comes to your administrative assistant or your production employees. Furthermore, a detailed analysis of each employee category in the context of applicable state laws as opposed to a “one-size-fits-all” agreement will aid in the enforcement process. By way of example, it may be ill-advised to include non-compete and customer non-solicitation covenants within the agreements designated for North Carolina-based scientists because such scientists do not have access to customers or secret formulas which could be damaging if they leave for a competitor. In states such as North Carolina where the enforcement of a non-compete or customer non-solicitation is somewhat unpredictable, a good solid confidential information covenant may be preferred.
Along these same lines, this first step will also pave the way for other critical discussions with your counsel. The four primary types of employee restrictive covenants – the non-compete, customer non-solicitation, employee non-solciitaion and confidential information covenants – have varying applications depending on the nature and level of employee to which the agreement is directed. Each occupies what could be described as a “sliding scale of enforceability. Non-compete covenants which, to some degree or another, restrict a former employee’s subsequent employment in the industry are the most difficult to enforce, followed by the customer non-solicitation, the employee non-solicitation and finally, the confidential information covenant. As such a careful categorization of targeted protectable interests for each employee category and the state laws involved for each will help ensure enforcement and reduce the number of agreement versions your Company is required to manage and update.
We will expand on this analysis in future articles, taking a closer look at other key components of this analysis including adequate consideration, blue-penciling laws and the non-compete versus non-solicitation analysis.