No Such Thing as a Slam-Dunk Lawsuit
Q: Could a potential employee who is asked to sign a non-compete employment agreement just sign the document to "go with the flow" and not make waves if it looks unenforceable? Let's say a potential employee or job candidate is offered a job and presented with an employment contract stating that, for two years, he/she cannot write articles for any other media company competing in the same market. I think this seems unenforceable, so wouldn't it be easier to just sign it to make the company happy, especially if one thinks the contract is not worth the paper it was written on? Clearly, one would have to closely read the language.
A: All contracts are serious, as an individual is signing away his or her rights. A contract may be much more than it seems, even if it appears straightforward to an individual outside of the legal field. Any reputable company asking its potential employees to sign an employment agreement will suggest and allow time for a legal review by a lawyer representing employees and not employers. Generally, attorneys will work for one side or the other, but not both, as it would be a conflict of interest. If a company demands or pressures a potential hire to accept and sign an employment contract without allowing time for an attorney review, the potential hire should recognize that expectation as a warning sign for other potential coercive behavior in the future.
Unfortunately, a job candidate who is desperate for work may ignore such a warning sign and feel he or she has no choice but to sign it. Don't assume that it will be easy to legally fight a serious employee-employer disagreement, if one should arise. Very few laws, if any, are black-and-white. Even a traffic ticket can be argued in a court of law, so imagine the details that can be covered in a contract. An experienced labor and employment attorney will know -- or can research -- the state's laws and recognize possible loopholes that an untrained eye will not see. When a contract recognizably favors the company by restricting a person's ability to get another position in the field or in that market, the company still has greater financial resources to argue its position than the individual has.
Employees may not be aware that a company has an in-house attorney or outside law firm on retainer for such situations that give the company a financial advantage. A company threatening to file a lawsuit against an employee for contract breach, even if the company is likely to lose, will hurt the employee far more than it will the company.
Although an employee may eventually win in court, the financial drain and emotional stress will likely not be worth it. It may also make one's future job searches more difficult. Once a lawsuit is filed, it becomes public knowledge, and it's easy for other companies to search the records. Yes, a lawsuit can follow you even if the settlement is confidential. This is why many attorneys suggest settling before a suit is filed. Also, an individual will have to pay his or her attorney's fees, unless the judge orders that these fees be paid by the company.
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Signing any contract is a serious matter, and signing without an attorney review is simply too risky, no matter how transparent an individual may think a contract is. There are likely to be other conditions described in a non-compete contract, such as ownership of the client leads and client list, together with other employee notes and records. Accepting a company's demands to sign a contract without understanding the full impact it may have on one's future is too great a risk to take. No matter how desperate a person is to find a job, desperate situations can lead to poor decision-making.
Email your workplace issues and experiences to email@example.com. For more information about career and life coach Lindsey Novak, visit www.lindseyparkernovak.com, and for past columns, see www.creators.com/read/at-work-lindsey-novak.