Should You Always Enforce Covenants Not to Compete?

Covenants not to compete are binding contracts that are designed to protect companies against exiting employees unlawfully sharing different types of proprietary information, “trade secrets” and intellectual property with their new employers and others and engaging in post-employment activities that can be detrimental to the company they left.

Before discussing whether it’s wise to develop an ironclad attitude toward enforcing these covenants, it’s helpful to review the basic reasons why these documents are usually drafted and what standards courts consider when deciding whether they should be upheld.

Companies must protect specific types of information

Whether your business sells cutting-edge security software or sends out consultants to advise clients in mostly rural areas, your employees often learn highly detailed information about how you help your clients. If you were to always let key employees leave and immediately put that proprietary information and knowledge to work for a competitor, your business might quickly lose its competitive edge and market dominance.

Therefore, many companies regularly require employees to sign noncompete agreements to prevent them from using what they learn while employed for a limited time post-employment. Should former employees violate these agreements, they (and their new employers) can often be sued in court.

Common types of proprietary interests you’ll usually want to protect

  • Trade secrets. Perhaps your company has invented a manufacturing process that should not be shared with any competitors. It’s also possible that you’ve designed a highly effective training program for your employees that makes them uniquely effective at handling their work. You clearly don’t want them to share those training methods with others;
  • Client databases. You’ll want to prevent all departing employees from reviewing any past buying practices, requests and needs of your clients;
  • Other highly confidential materials. These could include almost anything – perhaps you’ve implemented a specialized marketing plan that’s helped your business grow several times over during recent years.

These examples should help remind you of the many proprietary types of information you must protect by requiring your exiting employees to sign covenants not to compete.

Within such covenants, you’ll need to address various topics that may include the following ones.

  • A specific time period. Any time period must be reasonable, normally 1-3 years;
  • A description of the types activities the employee cannot engage in post-employment. You can list specific industries, customers or businesses the departing employee should not contact for a new employer;
  • A specific geographical area where the departing employee cannot work. You can state a certain region where the employee who left cannot compete with you for a set time period.

When evaluating the reasonableness of covenants not to compete, courts look to see if they are over-broad or too restrictive. While businesses have a right to protect certain information or “legitimate business interests”, they aren’t allowed to unfairly prevent a departing employee from pursuing most forms of gainful employment.

Should you always enforce your contracts containing noncompete clauses?

Although the most obvious response is to say you’ll always strictly enforce them, it’s important to recognize certain factors before suing someone for not honoring a noncompete covenant.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can help you draft any contracts you need containing covenants not to compete. We can that someone is currently asking you to sign – or assist you in enforcing or defending a lawsuit.

What Should Be Included in Your Employee Handbook?

Both large and small companies can benefit from providing their workers with employee handbooks. These texts help employers answer key questions and clearly document that the same standards and rules govern their interactions with everyone. After all, no one wants to work for an employer who grants special privileges or benefits to some workers and not to others.

Employee handbooks also let employers set forth all their behavioral standards and procedural rules in a manner that can help them limit future liabilities — should anyone ever try to sue them for wrongful termination or acting in a discriminatory manner.

Before reviewing some crucial sections that many businesses like to include in their employee manuals, here’s a quick look at some of the topics that most workers want to see addressed.

Employees often search for information about key standards and office procedures

  • Be sure to outline your behavioral standards, attendance rules, office attire and the level of respect required for all relationships. Most employees are eager to learn how you view tardiness and what you consider acceptable clothing. Likewise, new workers want to learn about your conduct standards — and if your office has a “zero tolerance” policy toward all forms of sexual harassment and discrimination;
  • Always provide clear information about pay grades, qualifications for receiving medical insurance, pay periods and all forms of employee benefits. Workers usually start to relax more once they’re told how often they’ll be paid and the exact size of their payroll deductions. Likewise, it’s important to tell employees when (and if) they may be considered qualified for healthcare insurance;
  • Always state how often employee evaluations are conducted and the best ways workers can try to position themselves for future raises and promotions;
  • Be sure to note any individual or family leave policy provisions that your company honors. Always have your Houston employment law attorney read over this information for you, to be sure it fully complies with all current federal, state and local laws; and
  • Describe your most crucial emergency and safety procedures. Always tell your workers how they should evacuate from the office during extreme weather events, fires and even possible shooting incidents. Each new worker should be shown the proper way to exit the building on their first day on the job – and be shown where fire extinguishers and first aid kits are kept.

While these are just a small sampling of the general topics most employees want to see covered, they should help remind you of many other important subjects that you should cover in your employee handbooks.

The following list is compromised of some of the most commonly used sections in employee handbooks.

Key headings or sections most employers include in their employee handbooks

  • A “Preface” section. You may want to provide a general history of the company here, along with information about the founding members of the business. You can also note who currently heads up various office branches. The company’s key values and goals for the future are also often stated here. If you like, you can also add a brief congratulations to each new employee for being hired;
  • Material explaining all basic pay arrangements, promotions and current employee benefits. You can describe any 401k or stock options in this section, as well as the various types of retirement benefits. Overtime pay policies should also be covered;
  • A section that describes “at-will” employment versus jobs offered under contract;
  • Standards for employee behavior. Be sure to address the need for regular attendance; rules governing personal cell phone use during the work day – and any restrictions on using work computers for private purposes. (Ask your attorney if you need to obtain written permission from all employees to monitor their computer usage);
  • Formal leave policies. In this section, you’ll need to list all paid office holidays, how employees should handle vacation and sick leave, personal days off, family medical leave and time off to honor current military service commitments;
  • Employee termination policies. Be sure to note that these can vary, depending on; if an employee is considered an “at-will” worker who can be dismissed rather informally or if the person was hired under a formal contract.
  • Confidentiality policies. Be sure to clearly state what information and trade secrets the company considers confidential and trade secret. Ideally, all employees would signed a confidentiality and non-disclosure agreement.

Should you wish to review a large number of sections that different employers have included in their employee handbooks, consider reading 53 Key Sections of an Employee Handbook (and Other Helpful Tips).”

The Texas Workforce Commission also has a number of policies and a form of Employee Handbook available for free at https://twc.texas.gov/news/efte/table_of_contents-az.html. However, choosing the right sections for any employee handbook often requires a keen understanding of employment law and many complex human resources issues.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys for help in drafting your new or updated employee handbook. We can provide you with the proper legal terminology required to meet your company’s unique needs.

Why It’s Often Wise to Moniter Employee Computer Usage

While all employees benefit from believing that their companies trust them, they must still accept the modern workplace reality that certain privacy interests must be carefully weighed against protecting valid business interests. Furthermore, employers have a need and a duty to make sure that all employees are putting in their fair share of time while completing assignments. No one should be allowed to waste valuable work time surfing the Internet or responding to personal emails while others are shouldering their proper tasks.

Do many employers regularly monitor computer and Internet usage?

At present, about 80% of large companies carefully monitor how their employees use workplace computers. They also routinely review all company website and social media postings and randomly review email exchanges and software downloads. Internet usage is also closely monitored. These practices can often help businesses avoid future lawsuits and financial losses.

Once your company decides to begin monitoring practices, you really should talk with your Houston business law attorney about all the legal concerns that can develop.

Before addressing other key issues involved with monitoring your employees, it will be helpful to note how many companies provide notice to their workers that their computer usage and Internet activities will soon be regularly reviewed.

When and how do employers bring up computer and Internet monitoring to employees?

  • At the time of hiring. You can make this a condition of accepting employment;
  • When all periodic performance evaluations are conducted. At the end of these sessions, you can produce a carefully worded document, asking for the employee’s written consent for monitoring their computer usage and business communications. It may be helpful to note how this can help protect some of their own interests — and limit the harassment that some employees might otherwise engage in if no such monitoring existed;
  • Include several paragraphs on the topic in your employee handbook. Always be sure that you later ask each new employee if they have any questions about this policy;
  • Place a warning above the company’s computer network sign-in page. This warning might reference the employee handbook – or the written consent form you should have already obtained from each employee;
  • Include a very clear and obvious “Notice” paragraph at the bottom of each outgoing email. This is an attempt to provide notice to third parties (such as non-business contacts who may include workers’ friends and family members who write to them at work – that any or all such emails are subject to monitoring and review).

Your signed consent forms should remind employees (along with the company employee handbook) that certain types of improper communications and usage of the Internet can result in disciplinary actions – and even firing.

As the following information indicates, your careful review of how employees are using their computers can prevent many serious workplace conflicts.

Harmful activities pursued by some using company computers, email and the Internet

  • Harassing behaviors. Making illegal and damaging statements in emails may constitute sexual, racial – or other forms of harassment;
  • Likewise, some types of email (or typed letters) may contain defamatory comments or illegal threats against others. No employee has the right to make serious threats against other employees or outside email recipients. These negative communications may simply imply that a specific person may lose his or her job if certain improper demands aren’t met;
  • Critical company information (like trade secrets and intellectual property) may be stolen and then shared with others;
  • Employees may download and then share copyrighted material or software, allowing others to make additional copies. This can also include the illegal download of porn materials — that are then sent off to others – or stored on your business databases;
  • Workers may accidentally share harmful email and general computer viruses while using their computers in unauthorized ways;
  • Employees may spend lengthy time periods surfing the net — unrelated to legitimate work assignments. Many companies wind up paying significant amounts of money each year for time that employees spent playing online games or enjoying other unauthorized Internet activities;
  • Some workers may maliciously sabotage company files and data for no apparent purpose;
  • Other employees may use their work computers and printers to complete tasks for their separate, private business needs.

Do employers have broad rights to monitor all employee activities at work?

Federal, state and even global laws can limit these rights. Also, most employers do not have the right to invade employee privacy by placing intrusive cameras or audio devices in restrooms or lunchrooms. However, they do have some specific rights to monitor how employees use equipment provided to them. And under certain circumstances, companies can even monitor how employees use their own personal computers while logged on to company networks and databases.

In general, any efforts you make to monitor employee communications must agree with the provisions of the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). Fortunately, it does allow certain types of monitoring that fall within an acceptable “business purpose exception.” In other words, your monitoring efforts must have a direct tie to protecting a “legitimate business purpose.”

As already noted above, it’s crucial to discuss all these matters with your attorney to be sure your approach to computer monitoring will not subject your company to any employee or third-party privacy lawsuits.

What global, federal and Texas laws address all these various legal topics?

Keep in mind that companies regularly interacting with international clients or companies must be prepared to observe all the following types of governing laws.

  • The European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – and the laws passed by many of its members’ individual states;
  • The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA)
  • The Stored Communications Act
  • Various federal wiretapping laws
  • Texas statutes and case law that your lawyer can review with you

Some general guidance is also available on the Texas Workforce Commission website.

Conclusion

Companies of every size must give all these issues considerable thought before buying any types of computer monitoring software. You’ll also need to decide which DLP (data loss prevention) solutions or strategies are most likely to meet your company’s unique needs. For example, do you want to prioritize software that helps with network traffic monitoring, keystroke logging, natural language processing – or other methods? You’ll also need to consider what types of data encryption practices may be useful to you.

Fortunately, there are many outside consultants who can help you carefully evaluate all the current computer monitoring software that’s available – so you can find the best products that fall within an affordable price range for your company.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can address your current questions about monitoring your employees’ business communications and usage of the Internet. We can also help you draft the types of privacy consent forms and other paperwork that can help you more proactively safeguard your company’s business interests.

Get Ready for the New Overtime Rule

May 18, 2016 – The U.S. Department of Labor has released its final rule on overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Administration estimates that the new rule will extend overtime protections to 4.2 million Americans who are not currently eligible under federal law. Once effective, the rule will raise the salary level from its previous amount of $455 per week (the equivalent of $23,660 a year) to $913 per week (the equivalent of $47,476 per year) in 2016. The rule will also raise the compensation level for highly compensated employees from its previous amount of $100,000 to $134,004 annually. The final rule also establishes a mechanism for automatically updating the salary level every three years, with the first update to take place in 2020. These changes take effect on December 1, 2016. The Final Rule can be viewed here: https://www.dol.gov/whd/overtime/final2016/

person-apple-laptop-notebook-medium

The final rule does not make any changes to the duties test for executive, administrative and professional employees, which affects the determination of who is exempt from overtime. Administrative employees who do not meet the special provision for administrative employees will be eligible for overtime if they earn below the salary level set in the final rule and they work more than 40 hours in a week.

In response to the new overtime rule, employers have the option of:

A. Paying time-and-a-half for overtime work;

B. Raising the workers’ salaries above the new threshold;

C. Limiting worker’s hours to 40 per week; or

D. Some combination of the above.