Beyond the Non-Compete: Things to Consider when Hiring a Competitor’s Employees

When engineer Anthony Levandowski announced in January 2016 that he was leaving Google for Uber, his employer was not happy. Levandowski was not just any engineer. As the head of Google’s efforts to develop a self-driving car, he was a Silicon Valley superstar, and now he was taking his considerable talents to Google’s chief rival in the race to develop a truly autonomous automobile.

Google was not going to take the defection lying down. Not long after Levandowski departed, Google sued Uber seeking $1.85 billion in damages and an injunction that would severely limit the work Levandowski would be able to do for Uber. Although the case eventually settled (during trial) for just a fraction of what Google originally sought, the wreckage was widespread: Levandowski was left unemployed, Google received $250 million worth of Uber stock, and both parties owed their attorneys tens of millions of dollars in legal fees.

The remarkable thing about Levandowski’s case is that Google never alleged that Levandowski had breached a non-compete agreement. They couldn’t, because he never had one. Non-competes are completely unenforceable in California.

The Levandowski case serves as a reminder that an employee and his future employers are bound by a web of legal obligations even when the employee is otherwise free to leave his current employment and go to another employer of his choosing.

The Duty of Loyalty and Other Limits on the Privilege to Compete

Most businesses are familiar with the doctrine of at-will employment. It provides that, generally, an employer can terminate an employee at almost any time and for almost any reason. (There are notable exceptions, such as terminating for an illegal or discriminatory reason.) The principle goes both ways. Employees are generally free to leave for greener pastures wherever they can find them. On top of that is the “privilege to compete,” which allows a company to compete against others in the open market for scarce customers, resources, and even talented employees. These doctrines are reinforced by states’ longstanding public policies against non-compete agreements and other “restrictive covenants.” This animosity toward limiting competition often renders any attempt to contractually bind an employee from jumping ship substantially – or even completely – unenforceable. Together, these doctrines help create an economy where the competition among companies for good employees is just as stiff as the competition for good customers.

But even against that background, neither the at-will employment doctrine nor the privilege to compete are unlimited. Both are restricted in ways that create potential risks for employers and the talent they seek to recruit.

As an initial matter, all workers – even the rank and file – have a “duty of loyalty” to their employers. The duty of loyalty is not as restrictive as the “fiduciary duty” that binds officers, directors, and other essential personnel, but it has “teeth” nonetheless. At its core, the duty of loyalty means an employee cannot compete against her employer or otherwise actively work against her employer’s interests. In practice, this typically means that an employee can plan to compete against her employer, but she cannot in fact compete against her employer while she is still employed.

To illustrate: George works for an advertising agency, but he dreams of having his own agency one day. While he is still working for his current agency, can he form an LLC, rent office space, and print business cards in anticipation of the day he finally strikes out on his own? He can. But can he take his clients out to lunch to discreetly inform them of his plans and solicit their business for his future agency? He cannot. The former is merely planning to compete against his current employer. The latter is actually competing against his current employer, and that is forbidden by the duty of loyalty.

Hiring a Competitor’s Employees – “Wrongful Means” and Employee Raiding

In addition to the duty of loyalty, the law recognizes that a business has a legally-protectible interest in an existing relationship between it and its employee, even when the relationship is at will, and the law will punish a third party’s attempts to induce a breach of loyalty or wrongfully interfere with that relationship. As a result, these obligations create some risk for the prospective employer, who must take care not to contribute to an employee’s breach of his duty of loyalty or otherwise interfere with the current employer’s rights.

So what can you do to hire away employees from another business? In Georgia and many other states, a prospective employer (Employer B) will be protected from liability when recruiting from a competitor (Employer A) if the following conditions are met:

  • The relationship between the employee and Employer A concerns a matter involved in the competition between Employer A and Employer B;
  • Employer B does not use any “wrongful means” to recruit the employee;
  • Employer B’s actions don’t create or continue an “unlawful restraint of trade” (that is, they are not intended to help Employer B create a monopoly for its goods or services); and
  • Employer B’s purpose is at least in part to advance its own interest in competing with Employer A.

It’s the second prong – the use of “wrongful means” – that most commonly causes issues. What exactly are wrongful means? They are often described as actions that are wrong on their own, even outside the context of recruiting – such as using fraud or defamation. But cases involving such obviously wrongful means are not particularly common. The following scenario is both more common and less obvious.

Imagine that our adman George has decided he would rather not go out on his own after all. What he really wants to do is join a better agency, and his valuable book of business has landed him an offer with his current agency’s biggest rival. Of course, both George and the new agency expect George to bring his clients with him when he leaves. But George can’t serve those clients all on his own, and he would like to bring some additional talent with him to the new agency. So after putting in his two weeks’ notice – but before he actually leaves his employment with the company – he sets about recruiting some key members of his team to come with him and, with the new agency’s permission, extends formal offers of employment.

Is this allowed? Usually not. George is still an employee of the first agency, and by recruiting the first agency’s talent he is benefitting the new agency at the expense of his own employer. In short, George is violating his duty of loyalty to the first agency. But the new agency’s hands are not clean either. It has knowingly used George as a double agent to recruit talent from a competitor. This is the kind of “wrongful means” that the law forbids.

A special situation arises when one company “raids” another by hiring away a large portion of its employees at one time. As in a case where only one employee is hired, the central question is usually whether the hiring company used any wrongful means in its efforts to recruit. The problem in a case of mass hiring comes when the hiring party’s efforts are so successful that the mass defection leaves the competitor unable to function. In these cases, some courts have found that the crippling of the competitor is itself wrongful and therefore prevents the hiring company from claiming the protection of the privilege to compete.

It is often remarked that this is especially true if “other circumstances are present.” Unfortunately, few courts explain what those other circumstances may be, creating a zone of uncertainty for companies that aggressively recruit from their competitors. In the end, special care must be taken before recruiting a group of employees to leave a competitor en masse.

The Trade Secrets Trap

The special knowledge that makes a recruit highly desirable often includes special knowledge about his employer. For this reason, claims that a company used wrongful means to hire from a competitor are often accompanied by accusations that the competitor’s trade secrets have been stolen. These claims often directly implicate the hiring company as a co-conspirator. Google’s lawsuit against Uber, for example, turned largely on allegations that Uber used Levandowski to steal Google’s trade secrets.

A trade secret is generally defined as having four qualities: One, it must be information. Two, the information must derive economic value from the fact it is secret. Three, the information must not be generally known. And four, the information must be the subject of reasonable efforts to maintain its secrecy.

The subject of what is and is not a trade secret could never be adequately covered in a single article. But for the purposes of hiring from a competitor, one characteristic should always be remembered: Trade secrets may or may not be the subject of a confidentiality agreement. Trade secrets are protected by state and federal law, so the fact that a new hire is not bound by a confidentiality agreement with her former employer does not, by itself, mean she does not possess any trade secrets that could create liability for the new employer.

Furthermore, liability for the theft (or misappropriation) of trade secrets is not limited just to the individual who actually pilfered the information. It also extends to any person who acquires or uses the information knowing that it was wrongfully obtained in the first place – or even simply having reason to know that the source of the information (i.e., the new hire) had a duty to a third party (i.e., the former employer) to keep it secret. This principle creates some measure of risk when hiring an employee who may possess sensitive information.

Difficult problems arise when a departing employee does not actively “take” his former employer’s trade secrets but, rather, simply possesses his former employer’s trade secrets only in his memory. It’s fair to say, though, that the typical suit over trade secrets involves much more concrete claims. The jilted employer often alleges that the former employee left with copies of his former employer’s files. These days, it is not uncommon to read allegations that, prior to his departure, the employee downloaded valuable files to a thumb-drive, sent them as attachments to a personal email account, or even photographed files with a smart phone.

Not all files contain trade secrets, of course. Nevertheless, an employer should never encourage or facilitate a new hire’s removal of files from his former employer.

Conclusion

Non-compete agreements and other restrictive covenants are often a concern when hiring new employees, especially those with specialized skills and abilities. Even in the absence of a restrictive covenant, however, employees and their suitors are still bound by rules that arise solely from the law. Employers must be mindful of these non-contractual restrictions when recruiting potential employees.  If you have any questions about this article or need assistance in assessing your business’s rights with respect to a prospective employee or a departing employee, please contact Ben Byrd at bbyrd@fh2.com or (770) 399-9500 to discuss further.

Ben Byrd
About the author:
Ben Byrd, Associate
Ben focuses his practice on assisting businesses through litigation and regulatory advocacy compliance. As a litigator, Ben represents his clients vigorously and professionally, and he has represented businesses in nearly every forum, from small-claims court all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court. As a regulatory attorney, he represents clients before state and federal regulatory bodies, including the Federal Communications Commission, state utility commissions and state legislatures. Regardless of the matter, Ben never forgets that the ultimate goal is to advance his clients’ business interests. For more information about Ben, click here.

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