Are Non-competes Hurting Seattle’s Tech Industry?

This was the question posed more broadly in Fortune’s recent article “Are noncompete agreements hurting tech innovation?”

Washington joins Massachusetts and Rhode Island in considering new legislation that would severely limit or void many non-compete agreements. Known in Washington as House Bill 1926, the law would principally require that “every contract by which a person is restrained from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business of any kind is to that extent void.” If enacted, Washington would join other leading states like California that severely limit non-compete agreements in employee contracts.

Supporters of the bill point to the enormous success of the tech industry in Silicon Valley where similar bans exist. However, critics say non-competes are necessary to protect the employer’s investment in training, education, and exposure to confidential company information.

For the casual reader, non-competes agreements in Washington are often thought of in three parts: (1) agreements to not work for a competitor/customer; (2) agreements to not solicit customers; and (3) agreements to not solicit employees. The three are colloquially thought of as one agreement. However, Washington courts view each of these provisions differently with the burden on the employer to show that the agreement is reasonable.[1]

The debate surrounding non-compete agreements have increased due to recent reports of non-compete clauses showing up in low-wage manual labor contracts. The New York Times reported in 2014 of non-compete agreements showing up in Jimmy John’s employee contracts. The company’s actions have prompted congressional attention to ban non-competes for certain worker categories or workers earning below a monetary threshold. This is a notable contrast to non-competes widespread use for high-wage earners such as executives, engineers, scientists and high-commission sales employees.

[1] Sheppard v. Blackstock Lumber Co. 85 Wn.2d 929, 933, 540 P.2d 1373 (1975).