Non-compete clauses (or ‘covenants not to compete’, CNCs) in contracts restrict parties from working or doing business in particular industries or geographic markets for some period of time after the termination of the contract. These clauses seem to be getting more common (even for fast food restaurants). There are some economic justifications for CNCs, particularly if an employee has access to proprietary information that is central to the employee’s role or if things like client lists or industry contacts are key strategic assets. CNCs can help align the incentives of both the employee and the employer–since having those protections may increase information sharing within the firm. My colleague, Harvey James, Jr., has a nice piece (ungated version here) on employment contracts that discusses some of these incentive issues.
Ultimately, however, CNCs are subject to State law and State enforcement–and not all States enforce CNCs with equal rigor. So what are the effects of State enforcement (and thereby, of CNCs themselves)?
A recent study in Human Resource Management by Smriti Anand, Iftekhar Hasan, Priyanka Sharma and Haizhi Wang explores the effect of State enforceability of CNCs on firm productivity. The results seem rather interesting. The abstract reads:
Noncompete agreements (also known as covenants not to compete [CNCs]) are frequently used by many businesses in an attempt to maintain their competitive advantage by safeguarding their human capital and the associated business secrets. Although the choice of whether to include CNCs in employment contracts is made by firms, the real extent of their restrictiveness is determined by the state laws. In this article, we explore the effect of state-level CNC enforceability on firm productivity. We assert that an increase in state level CNC enforceability is detrimental to firm productivity, and this relationship becomes stronger as comparable job opportunities become more concentrated in a firm’s home state. On the other hand, this negative relationship is weakened as employee compensation tends to become more long-term oriented. Results based on hierarchical linear modeling analysis of 21,134 firm-year observations for 3,027 unique firms supported all three hypotheses.