Non-compete clauses and Workplace Security Threat LevelsApr 3rd, 2011 | By joegrimm | Category: News
Q. A former coworker contacted me today because the newspaper company is having everyone sign a non-compete agreement which precludes pretty much any media-related activities (from multimedia to design and basic editing) while the employee is on the job and for one year after the person leaves.
This is a 20k(ish) circulation paper where people have had furloughs and no raises for three years. Employees were given one week to sign. The penalty for not signing is the possibility of being fired.
I find this a rather shocking turn of events — but perhaps it is more common nowadays?
A. It is unfair to threaten to fire people who try to maintain their livelihood after leaving an employer that has been cutting their compensation.
This may be one of the most abusive cases I have heard of for a non-compete clause, though I don’t have any more details than you have given me.
Non-compete clauses come in different flavors. Some reasonably protect the newsroom’s local news franchise, but extreme agreements seem almost paranoid.
The world is changing. As collaboration supplants competition, some non-competes are anachronistic. Agreeing to let journalists work for more than one kind of outlet in a community can be a win-win.
With the advent of the internet, though, some companies went beyond the bounds of logic. On the one hand, they described anyone else who was also on the internet as a competitor and off limits. On the other hand, they said that any work produced by their staffs could be used on any platform that existed without additional compensation. Talk about holding all the cards.
Non-compete clauses are commonplace in television. Situations like the one you describe, where they are suddenly introduced, usually arise when the employer fears that a new competitor will hire staff members away and acquire their expertise.
One editor I know who worked for a newspaper in the Twin Cities when the newspaper war was hot and heavy was told to sign a contract saying he would not work for competitors after he left. He argued that this would hurt his ability to earn an income if he stayed in town, as he planned, and he insisted that he be compensated for signing, which would be a change in conditions. He got some money.
Your 20,000-circulation newspaper is using the stick rather than the carrot. No checks will be cut.
The situation you have described, which would require a year of silence on that market, is orange on my Workplace Security Non-Compete Clause Threat Scale.
Here is how I rate others non-compete agreements:
HIGH: You are not allowed to perform any sort of journalism — writing, artwork, design photography or editing — for anyone else anywhere on the basis that anyone who posts on the Web is our competition.
ELEVATED: You cannot do the kind of work you do for us for them — whoever they might be — though you could edit if you are a writer and vise versa if the other place is not in our market area.
GUARDED: No working for our neighboring competitors. If you can write something for a national magazine, please get them to say you work for us, OK? And include a link. We need the eyeballs.
LOW: You are encouraged to work for non-competing media in the market, but you have to identify yourself as our person. This policy lets the columnist or critic appear regularly on local radio or TV, extending the newsroom’s brand and their own, as well.
FOLLOW: A journalist wrote to say that the TV station she works at has a non-compete clause that forbids her for six months after she leaves from working for any newsroom in the United States that puts news on the Web. It feels to her like a career stopper. Have any ideas? Leave a comment.