How to Protect Trade Secrets When Terminating an Employee

Question:

We’re about to terminate an employee and worry she’ll take trade secrets when she leaves. Although we’ll shut off her computer and internet access during her termination interview, how do we protect what she might already have taken?

 

Answer:

Although common law provides employers some protection from employees or former employees misusing trade secrets, your best protection starts before you fire an employee. Hopefully, you’ve outlined your company’s expectations concerning your company’s intellectual property and confidential and proprietary information in your employee handbook and your employee’s hiring agreement. This agreement needs to include a clause outlining your employee’s post-employment obligations.

You can also ask your employees to sign confidentiality agreements prior to commencing employment. These agreements can be particularly helpful if an employee tries to steal trade secrets during or after employment.

Next, control and safeguard access to key elements of your intellectual property. For example, we protect our training PowerPoints by not letting them be electronically transmitted, maintaining oversight of who downloads them and letting clients know, when they request them, that we maintain tight access over these materials.

What if you haven’t acted preventatively? Courts in multiple jurisdictions have held that employees owe a duty of good faith and fidelity toward their employers, which requires that they maintain the confidentiality of, and not misuse, trade secrets they are exposed to during and after their employment. You can also reinforce your expectations orally or in written form as you terminate your employee.

Lynne Curry writes a weekly column on workplace issues. She is author of “Solutions” and “Beating the Workplace Bully” and Regional Director of Training & Business Consulting for “The Growth Company” an Avitus Group Company. Send questions to lynne@thegrowthcompany.com, follow her on Twitter @lynnecurry10 or at http://www.workplacecoachblog.com.

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