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Job doc: Noncompete clauses complicate leaving

Q. I’m leaving my company, and they are putting together a severance package for me. I’m most concerned about my ability to find a new job and any restrictions my old employer may impose making finding a job more difficult. What should I be concerned about?

A. When someone receives a severance agreement from the organization they are leaving, the most common issues focus on salary, benefits, and job search support. Based on your concern about your severance agreement, I contacted Todd Bennett, a partner at the Cambridge law firm Bennett & Belfort PC. Bennett notes, “One important consideration is whether or not your former employer will ask to you abide by a restrictive covenant, such as a noncompete restriction. In Massachusetts, noncompete [agreements] are generally enforceable.’

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You might hope for a simple “yes” or “no” to determine whether a noncompete you are asked to sign is enforceable or not, but Bennett says the dreaded “It depends” typically applies. Some factors that courts will review in analyzing the enforceability of a noncompete, Bennett says, include whether the duties at the new job are similar to those at the old one, how much access you had to highly proprietary information, such as trade secrets, and how specialized your knowledge is in the industry.

In order to be enforceable, noncompete restrictions must be reasonable in both geographic scope and with respect to the duration of the restriction. Most courts will frown on a former employer who tries to use overly broad restrictions that may eliminate your chances of finding a job.

Potential legal claims against your former employer might create leverage for you to negotiate a more favorable noncompete, or it could stop or slow down your search. Review what you sign on the way in and the way out of any company to protect your career.

Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.
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