Employing highly intelligent and highly qualified employees in a range of sophisticated commercial businesses is a risky business for employers.
To acquire competitive business advantage in an increasingly globalized and networked world of pharmaceuticals, genetics, telecommunications, power supply and information technology requires the employment of highly qualified, well educated, experienced and clever employees.
Potential employers and employees are both well advised to seek legal assistance when drafting or accepting terms of employment. Due to the seniority of these employees, their employment contracts are less likely to be workplace agreements but more likely to be private , one-off, contracts of employment.
Often, employees in the pharmaceuticals, genetics, telecommunications, power supply and information technology industries will have access to secret and confidential information which is both price and market-sensitive. This information might be chemical formulae, scientific and technological data, chemical, electrical or manufacturing trade processes, hardware or software engineering designs, or a range of other sophisticated technological and scientific information. The potential employee will need access to this information to perform his or her anticipated role. When the employment relationship ends, however, the employer is faced with a double problem. First, the employee is leaving. Whether the departure is voluntary or involuntary, it will be an inconvenience and a disruption to the employer. Secondly, and more importantly long term, the departing employee will take with him or her, knowledge of the secret and confidential information which may be the very basis of the employer’s competitive advantage in a particular industry or market.
To minimise this long term disruption, employers often include restraint of trade clauses in employment contracts when employing people in these sensitive areas. Commonly, the restraint of trade will prevent the former employee from seeking employment with any competitor of the former employer in the particular market for a period of time.
In current times, where there is a shortage of trained staff, particularly in scientific and technological areas, the reason why an employee departs is generally because he or she has received a better offer from a competitor.
In deciding whether or not to enforce the restraint of trade clause against a departing employee, Victorian courts have to balance a number of competing factors.
First, neither Australian nor Victorian general law will restrain a former employee from seeking employment with a competitor. Any such restraint must be found in an enforceable clause in the contract of employment with the former employer. Employers, therefore, should always ensure that staff are employed pursuant to written contracts of employment which contain enforceable restraints of trade.
Secondly, Victorian courts will not allow employers to prevent former employees from conducting a living by practising the skills which may have taken many years to acquire through university courses or practical experience. However, this is only a general rule or starting point.
Thirdly, Victorian courts will not allow former employees to obtain an unfair springboard into a new career by abusing the trust of the former employer. Examples are where employees spend an entire weekend photocopying price lists, formulae, client contact details and other confidential information and then resign the following Monday morning to set up a competitive business the following Tuesday morning.
Essentially, Victorian courts perform a balancing act between the competing interests of the employee to be able to continue to gain a living on the one hand and the employer’s interests of being able to reasonably prevent the disclosure of confidential and secret trade-sensitive information to competitors when the employment relationship ceases.
The sorts of factors courts have taken into account are as follows. First, Victorian courts will look to see whether the restraint of trade is reasonable or is too restrictive. Any restraint which tries to prevent an employee from working not only in the particular business of the former employer but any other associated or ancillary business is likely to be struck down. Likewise, a restraint which seeks to prevent an employee from working for an excessively lengthy period (generally more than 12 months) is also highly likely to be struck down and declared unenforceable. To overcome these problems, lawyers draft restraint of trade clauses to have a “waterfall” effect. The clause contains a number of alternatives, for example, starting from a very wide restraint and then proceeding to an increasingly narrow restraint in terms of future employment activities or in terms of length of time. Each one of the alternatives is severable from the contract if declared unenforceable by a court. Accordingly, a court might reject a restraint which provided for former employee X not to be employed in any pharmaceutical industry within South East Asia including Australia. The court, on the other hand, may be prepared to enforce a restraint which prevented employee X from being employed in the field of molecular genetic artificial-blood technology in either Melbourne or in Sydney for a period of one year. Such a restraint is far more precise and reasonably protects the former employer’s confidential information whilst allowing the employee to seek employment in the general field of molecular genetics.
A court must also be satisfied that an employer’s fears are genuine. For instance, is the information really secret and confidential? If the information is only knowledge which an employee would obtain through the repetitive working of his or her ordinary job, courts are less likely to regard this as secret or confidential information. Other sorts of information which are publicly available (even such as client contact details and price lists) may also not qualify. If there is no secret or confidential information, then there can be no restraint of trade.
Courts will also look to see whether the employee was specifically compensated for the restraint when first employed. If an employee received a specific additional sum as a hiring incentive for a longer than normal restraint of trade, courts are more likely to be persuaded that the restraint, when ultimately applied, is reasonable. The employee has accepted the restraint when first employed and has received a specific benefit for it.
Another factor which courts will examine is the seniority of the former employee. The more senior, the more likely it may be that the now departed employee may be capable of encouraging other staff to follow him or her and more capable of influencing former clients to switch allegiance. Alternatively, if the former employee was not employed in a managerial position and was only employed at either a junior or specific technical level, courts may be less worried about wholesale client or staff defections which would need to be prevented by the restraint of trade clause.
Until recently, courts seemed reluctant to enforce restraints of trade for more than 3-6 months. However, recent New South Wales Supreme Court authorities seem to be swinging the pendulum back in favour of employers where the balancing exercise outlined above suggests that the restraint of trade does need to be enforced to reasonably protect the former employer’s market and confidential information interests. For instance, Brereton, J., in John Fairfax Publications Pty Ltd v. Bert & Ors  N.S.W.S.C. 995 upheld a restraint of trade for 12 months in relation to a former employee who had been employed at a senior level. The same judge, in Cactus Imaging Pty Ltd v. Peters  N.S.W.S.C. 17 (18 July 2006) also enforced a restraint of trade for 12 months in a situation where the former employee operated in a restrictive market or oligopoly.
This is a complex area of law. Contracts of employment generally and restraints of trade particularly need to be carefully drafted to have their intended legal effect.
Employers and employees need to be carefully advised on the range of tactics available in post employment scenarios.