secret.jpgThere’s a trial going on in Delaware’s Court of Chancery that involves a well-known company going after an ex employee, and it should be a wake up call for all you workers out there who will some day go on to greener employment pastures.

The makers of Gore-Tex, W.L. Gore, are claiming an ex employee, Darrell Long, violated agreements he had signed with the company specifying he would not compete with his former employer or disclose any company secrets. Long is now a product line leader with General Electric and Gore is crying foul against Long and GE.

This from the Wilmington News Journal:

… in the weeks leading up to his
resignation, Long downloaded more than
9,000 documents from his work computer,
many of them confidential filtration
business plans, financial statements and
customer lists, according to public court
filings.

Gore’s case includes wide-ranging — and often unrelated — accusations against Long and officials at GE Energy, including another former Gore employee, Bob Muscat. Gore claims that Long, Muscat and others “plotted” to use confidential documents from Gore to capture the company’s filtration business, court filings show.

Long and GE are disputing Gore’s accusations but this type of dispute is likely to play out more and more in the months and years ahead as employees decide to jump ship. Employers have gotten more stringent in recent years about having worker sign noncompete agreements, and many employees have felt pressure to sign just about anything during the tough economy because they wanted jobs.

Among the flood of forms you get when you’re first hired, or paperwork a boss asks you to fill out as part of a new company policy, a noncompete clause or agreement may be lurking. If you sign it, you could be shooting yourself in the career foot.

Such legal documents can preclude you from going to work for a competitor or even keep you from starting a business in a similar industry; and they are more popular than ever. “Employers are still holding the cards,” said Barbara Poole, CEO of Employaid, an online resource for employees and HR executives. “This is an era of distrust - employees of corporations and vice versa.”

Poole likens noncompete agreements to prenuptial contracts. Too often, employees get caught up in the elation of getting a job offer and “don’t think about what they’re signing.”

However, legal experts say, you sign at your own peril. Given the tough economy and intense competition among most industries today, employers increasingly are taking workers to court over violations of these agreements.

“We see far more attempts to enforce these,” says Poole.

In addition, noncompete agreements have become more common as the economy has shifted more toward service sector jobs and away from manufacturing.

“More jobs are in the service world, where information is the premium,” says Steve Fox, employment attorney at Fish & Richardson in Dallas “The value of what employees have in their heads is greater. There’s more of a need for noncompetes because it’s so much easier to leave and take what you’ve learned from the old employer and apply it with the new employer.”

There are a couple of things to keep in mind before you do sign a noncompete agreement.

It’s a good idea to contact your local labor department to find out if noncompete clauses are applicable in your state. If they are, Daniel Levine, an employment attorney with Shapiro, Blasi, Wasserman & Gora in Boca Raton, Fla, advises employees to spend some time reading the document and maybe even have a lawyer take a look so you fully understand what you’re agreeing to.

If you decide not to sign a noncompete agreement, an employer can decide not to hire you. That is within their legal rights, he says.

If you’re laid off, he adds, you could try and negotiate a severance package so that you’re not in financial dire straits during the period you’re not allowed to compete.

You also have to take into consideration the scope of the agreement is. In many cases if a noncompete clause is too broad it won’t hold up in court, legal experts say.

And nothing precludes you from altering the noncompete agreement before you sign it. An employer may not accept it, but what do you have to lose?

“If you work in retail and the noncompete says you can’t work for another retail company within 250 miles, that limits your options,” she says. It’s reasonable, she adds, to ask that they narrow the scope to maybe another bookseller, or coffee shop, depending on what the direct competition is for the business.

The bottom line is getting a longer perspective on your career, beyond just a job offer on the table.

“It’s like the pushmi-pullyu [a fictional two-headed creature] from ‘Dr. Dolittle,’ ” says Employaid’s Poole. “You want to sign, but should you sign?”

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