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Editorial

Massachusetts should ease up protecting ‘noncompete’ clauses

ONE MEASURE of economic security is whether workers can pick up a new job after leaving an old one. And there is strong evidence that, for some skilled workers, Massachusetts law is making that task much harder than necessary.

A legal dispute involving a former salesman for Boston Beer Co. sheds new light on a long-standing problem for workers in competitive industries: The Commonwealth’s laws that enforce “noncompete’’ clauses in employment contracts can impede specialized workers’ ability to find new jobs - and may make them less likely to stay in Massachusetts, or even settle here in the first place.

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As the Globe’s Steven Syre reported this month, the Boston Beer Co., maker of Sam Adams, recently filed suit in federal court in Boston after Judd Hausner, its former district sales manager for the San Francisco area, jumped ship to Anchor Brewing Co. Hausner had signed an agreement stipulating that he wouldn’t go work for Boston Beer’s competitors. California law generally doesn’t enforce such agreements, but Massachusetts does in many industries - to the disadvantage of the Commonwealth’s workers. Now the company wants the court to order an injunction against Hausner under Massachusetts law. And Hausner isn’t the only one whose fate hangs in the balance.

The main area in which West Coast competition should concern Massachusetts isn’t beer but high tech. It isn’t just the mild California weather that draws graduates of top Massachusetts universities to Silicon Valley. The business culture there, as the film “The Social Network’’ famously intimated, is much more free-wheeling than in Massachusetts. One upside is that an area where people and ideas move freely offers fertile soil for innovation. The more practical benefit is that - at least in normal economic times - discontented or laid-off tech workers in California can find work elsewhere without too much sweat.

In Massachusetts, established tech firms say the enforcement of noncompete clauses makes it easier to protect trade secrets and promote stability at small startup firms where individual employees have invaluable expertise. Yet some companies ask even workers without such expertise to sign noncompetes.

Many workers are asked to sign the agreements only after accepting job offers. Some agreements are defined so broadly that workers who leave a company have difficulty discerning where they’re allowed to work. And fear of being sued by a new employee’s old company makes some companies reluctant to hire workers they’d otherwise want.

What’s odd about the Boston Beer case is that Hausner doesn’t appear to have specialized insight into proprietary beer technologies; he’s a salesman who wants to work for a different company.

Even if the typical computer-science graduate from MIT isn’t factoring noncompete clauses into decisions about where to work, the agreements reflect a buttoned-down culture where the law protects the immediate interests of current companies - but makes it harder to recruit the talented people whole industries need to thrive in the long term.

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