Don't sign away your future: Noncompetes done right

Should you sign a noncompete agreement? Experts weigh your choices.

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Even in pro-business districts or states, courts aren't going to blindly enforce noncompete agreements, Joffe says. They look at how long the noncompete lasts, whether the prohibited work is defined and whether the geographic area where the work is prohibited is fair. They also consider how the relationship ended, since they're less likely to enforce a noncompete against laid-off workers.

"Fairness is a very, very big issue, and courts are looking at just how much companies are trying to restrict someone," Joffe says. "Even states that enforce agreements want to make sure the employers aren't taking advantage, because the courts don't want to keep people from earning a living."

Can you negotiate?

In theory, a noncompete agreement is a contract negotiated between two parties -- both of whom should feel free to clarify terms, Joffe says.

"But in the real world, there are many more pressures when people are out of work and the job market is shrinking, and some employers might be tempted to take advantage," she says.

So how much leeway do you have to negotiate a noncompete? It depends, Joffe and others say.

The higher up you are, the more you can negotiate the terms, Schleier says. You also might have some pull if you have unique skills or were recruited.

If you're going to negotiate, you should start by finding out what your employer really wants to protect, says Sargent.

For example, if your boss wants to ensure that you don't disclose proprietary work when you leave, Sargent says you might get the company to agree to just a nondisclosure agreement.

Even if your employer is set on a noncompete agreement, Sargent says you might be able to negotiate the length or geographic restrictions or even additional severance to compensate for the time you might be sitting on the sidelines.

Next: A sampling of states' noncompete rules

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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