I’ve had one non-compete agreement in my career — at the first PR firm I joined in the mid-1990s. I made less than $24,000 a year. It was a hard-core agreement but even as I signed it, our HR person said that it “didn’t really mean anything.”
The interesting thing about the agreement was that it didn’t say I couldn’t go work for a client — it said I couldn’t go work for another PR firm. Within two years I broke the agreement when another firm lured me away with the promise of a bigger paycheck. The first firm threatened to go after me. Their lawyers contacted and threatened the lawyers of the PR firm I joined. I was assured by my lawyer (father) that the agreement wouldn’t hold up — that you simply can’t deny people the right to make a living in their field. The matter was ultimately settled behind the scenes and I had to agree to work on certain clients and not others, details of which I barely remember.
But it was stressful, for sure.
News today that President Obama is urging a ban on non-compete agreements thrills me. It’s how it should be, and employers should simply offer fair wages and a great workplace if they want their people to stay. The next firm I worked for didn’t have a non-compete of any kind. (Good; I would not have signed one.) They sometimes lost employees to clients but you know — that turned out so well for them. The firm continued to have the client with a friend and former colleague now on the inside. It was an incredibly, accidentally ingenious move, founded by a firm that had enough confidence in the quality of the service they offered, and in the loyalty of the people they employed. It often was the case that corporate or nonprofit life was a better fit than agency life for the employees who left, and the firm was better for it, ultimately.
My advice? Don’t sign a stinking non-compete. And if you’re in one now and thinking of breaking it, I believe you have a good shot of getting through it unscathed.