No matter what industry you are in, you have probably encountered non-compete and non-solicitation agreements. In Michigan, standard pre-employment paperwork often contains obligations for the employee not to compete with the employer (non-compete) and not to solicit the employers existing customers or other employees (non-solicitation).
Although these obligations may be same boilerplate paragraph of the documents your employees signed before or on that first day of work, non-competes and non-solicitation covenants are very distinct in terms of their enforcement by the courts. As an employer, you should understand the different goals of these two types of covenants, the differences in the applicable law, and also understand that Michigan courts will not automatically enforce an agreement just because an employee signed it.
For the uninitiated, a non-compete agreement obligates the employee to not “compete” with the employer’s line of business for a set period of time after leaving employment. The non-compete not only prevents direct competition (for example, an employee starting his or her own rival company), but also prohibits an employee from work for a competitor located within a certain area. By way of example, an employee working as a sales rep for a medical supply store might agree not to work for any competing medical supply store located within 100 miles of their current employer for a period of 1 year after leaving. In essence, the non-compete seeks to preserve the employer’s competitive advantage by restricting its employees’ ability to go work for a rival or to start their own competitive enterprise.
Because the non-compete restricts the free labor market, the Michigan Antitrust Reform Act of 1984 (MCL 445.774a) requires non-competes to:
- Protect a reasonable competitive business interest;
- Be reasonable in terms of duration;
- Be reasonable in terms of geographical area; and
- Be reasonable in terms of the the type of employment or business affected.
What is reasonable is a question of fact that depends on the facts of the non-compete and on the nature of the work to be restricted. For example, an agreement prohibiting a medical supply sales rep from competing for a year within 100 miles of his current territory is likely reasonable. However, the same agreement prohibiting the sales rep from working in the any medical-related field for 50 years anywhere in the world is probably not reasonable.
Also, the non-compete must protect a “reasonable competitive business interest” – meaning that agreements targeting back-room employees like maintenance or unskilled workers may be vulnerable to challenge because restricting those employees furthers no legitimate business interest. Before drafting and mandating a non-compete an employer should ask exactly what you they are trying to protect. If the answer is something concrete like “customers” or “sales contacts” – then the agreement is likely enforceable. If you struggle to come up with an answer or the answer is “I don’t want the employee working somewhere else” – then the agreement is potentially invalid.
A non-solicitation agreement on the other hand is a promise not to interfere with the employer’s actual business by stealing their customers and employees. The non-solicitation is easier to enforce than a non-compete for several reasons. First, a non-solicitation agreement is NOT subject to MCL 445.774a because it does not “expressly prohibit an employee from engaging in employment or a line of business after termination of employment.” Thus, the statutory “reasonableness” requirements set forth above do not apply. Second, the non-solicitation by its nature is directly tied to legitimate competitive interests. There is little question that a business’s customers and employees are valuable assets. To prohibit an existing employee from interfering with those assets is not much different than prohibiting stealing on the job. Second, a non-solicitation agreement by its nature will not apply to a lower-level employee because they are not as likely to have no reason to or opportunity to steal customers or employees. After all, a maintenance tech working at a manufacturing plant is not likely to quit his or her job to start a rival manufacturing plant and steal customers and employees. But a C-suite executive may very well become a direct competitor.
As an employer, it is always a good plan to update your on-boarding documents and employee handbook to ensure that you know exactly what your employees are agreeing to. It is grave mistake to simply print some forms from the internet and cobble together a policy that does not make sense in the context of your business. After all, it pays to have a solid, enforceable document. If there are problems, it is better to find out that the document is problematic before it is invalidated in the courts.