The growth of noncompete agreements is part of a broad shift in which companies assert ownership over work experience as well as work. A recent survey by economists including Evan Starr, a management professor at the University of Maryland, showed that about one in five employees was bound by a noncompete clause in 2014.
Employment lawyers say their use has exploded. Another recent study showed that noncompete and trade-secret lawsuits had roughly tripled since 2000. Noncompete agreements are not being used beyond the realm of protecting truly proprietary information. They are being used, and arguably abused, by companies of all types against employees at all levels.
Employment lawyers know this, but workers are often astonished to learn that they’ve signed away their right to leave for a competitor. A recent article in the New York Times tells the story of Timothy Gonzalez, an hourly laborer who shoveled dirt for a fast-food-level wage, was sued after leaving one environmental drilling company for another.
By giving companies huge power to dictate where and for whom their employees can work next, noncompetes take a person’s greatest professional assets — years of hard work and earned skills — and turn them into a liability.