Is there a future for non-compete clauses?
Hot on the heels of the US Federal Trade Commission’s (“FTC”) proposal for a complete ban on non-competes, the UK Government has announced its intention to limit post termination non-compete clauses to just three months. This comes as part of a wider announcement of proposals which the government says have been made to help boost the economy, in this case by promoting competition and productivity in the workplace.
When will this happen?
It’s unclear at the moment when this restriction will come into force. Any reform to the rules on non-complete clauses will require primary legislation, which the government’s press release states it will be done “when parliamentary time allows”, so when that will be is anyone’s guess.
What’s the impact of this change?
At first glance, this will cause alarm for many employers, particularly those in recruitment or sales where the exposure of former employees joining a competitor or setting up in competition is a real concern. However, there’s long been criticism in the courts for non-compete clauses with judges seeing them as unreasonable restraint of trade, particularly where there are non-dealing and non-solicitation clauses which can arguably offer sufficient protections to a business’ legitimate interests, without there being a total ban on competition.
What we do know is that the government have confirmed that limiting non-compete clauses will not affect restrictions during garden leave or paid notice periods (the proposal relates to post-termination only), or change the position on confidentiality clauses or non-solicitation clauses (which prevent employees from contacting previous customers, clients or suppliers in an attempt to win their business).
However, amongst other things, the government’s press release was silent on:
- non-dealing clauses (which sit somewhere between non-solicitation and non-compete clauses and are generally, therefore, easier to enforce than non-compete clauses); and
- whether the proposals will have retrospective effect (it’s likely that they will so an employee who spends 3 months of garden leave would likely not be restricted after the end of their employment, regardless of whether the restriction is longer).
What should employers do now?
Until the proposal becomes law, there’s no legal requirement to amend any existing restrictions, however employers that currently have restrictions beyond 3 months, or who are considering introducing them, should think carefully about whether these are likely to be enforceable now, and in the future.
Restrictive covenants are a complicated area and for the best chance of them being enforceable, they should be regularly reviewed. This is particularly important because the courts will only consider whether a restriction is enforceable at the time it’s entered into, not at the time the employer seeks to enforce them (by which time the employee/former employee may have a far more senior position, making the restrictions even more important).
For advice and assistance with drafting enforceable restrictive covenants, contact the Employment Team at Sherrards.