Norton Law Corporation Non-Compete Agreements for Independent Contractors

Independent Contractors and Non-Competes Never Mix

A shorter week equals a shorter post. That means it’s the perfect time to talk about an issue that comes up a fair amount. Can I get my independent contractors to sign a non-compete agreement? If you haven’t read the title, get ready for a surprise: NO. That’s right, you never want to have your independent contractors sign a non-compete agreement. I’ll explain why in a little bit, but first some backstory.

Employers love hiring contractors over employees for a ton of reasons. No benefits. No healthcare. No wage laws. No vacations. You don’t have to deal with those bureaucrats and their rules getting the the way of your business. In fact, most employers would love to hire only independent contractors. Too bad that’s just about impossible given the differences between employees and independent contractors. But that’s a story for another blog post.

Many employers, to avoid the extra costs of employees, misclassify employees as contractors. And that’s, for those of you who haven’t read my other post comparing employees and independent contractors, is a big no no. Misclassification just leads to a lot of fines and lawsuits and other nasty situations down the road, so don’t do it. And more and more governmental agencies are starting to take notice—much to the chagrin of the employers.

But here’s the thing. Somewhere along the way, employers felt their contractors were sharing trade secrets. After all, they were working for the competition, often at the same time. And truth be told, you should hope they are, since that may tip the scales to the independent contractor side over the employee side. Employers did not see this as a good thing, and so they asked their independent contractors to sign non-competes. As I stated in the intro, this is bad—very bad. Why?

Because non-compete agreements are documents only signed by employees—NEVER by independent contractors.

It all comes down to the question of who is a true independent contractor? One who checks all the contractor boxes in the employee versus independent contractor test. One who works for others while they’re working for you. And if you make that contractor sign a non-compete agreement, then guess what, they now only work for you—like an employee. But what’s so bad about that? Well, they’re supposed to be working for a variety of companies in the same industry in which they have expertise. After all, I assume that’s why you hired that independent contractor. You wanted someone with unique knowledge of the industry. And how did they get that knowledge? Probably by working for some of your competitors.

So what is a savvy business owner to do when she wants to hire an independent contractor? Well, as you’ve just learned, never have them sign a non-compete agreement. Instead, make sure they sign a confidentiality agreement (aka a non-disclosure agreement). An independent contractor agreement that lays out exactly what they’re to do and how much they’re paid for it is also great. Follow those up with an invention assignment agreement and you’re all set. After all, you don’t want their hard work (which you paid for) to wind up as their property. Those three documents are usually enough to keep employers out of trouble. As long as they stay out of their contractors way.

And for those who are hiring an independent contractor for mission critical activities? Double-check that you actually want an independent contractor and not an employee. If that’s the case, then slap that non-compete agreement in front of your contractor and tell them to sign it. Well, maybe don’t slap it in front of them, but you get the picture.

One final note. If you’re hiring someone and you want them to be classified as an independent contractor, take a look at our other blog post on the subject. 7 Tests to Determine if that Independent Contractor You’ve Hired is Actually an Employee. And if you need help drafting any of the necessary documents for your business (like employment or contractor agreements), feel free to contact me.

A few notes: Somehow this has become the most popular post on my website, which has led to a number of questions. Allow me to address some of the most common.

  1. Is the de facto rule that independent contractor agreements should never have a noncompete clause, no way no how, lest it automatically render the agreement invalid or something like that? No. There are some reasons to include one, but on the whole including a noncompete clause in an independent contractor agreement can lead to that independent contractor being classified as an employee. It is simply one of many factors to be looked at when trying to determine if an independent contractor is actually an employee in disguise. Furthermore, this post—like all of the posts on my website—is merely legal conjecture. It is not necessarily the black letter of the law nor should it be considered applicable to your unique situation. If you have a legal issue related to independent contractors and employees, contact an employment attorney.
  2. Does this post apply to me in my state/country in my unique situation? I can’t tell you that. Being a California lawyer, I can only talk about issues based on a California perspective (with the exception of my trademark and copyright law posts, which in certain circumstances are designed to cover the Federal laws dealing with trademarks and copyrights). So if you are in another state or country, you will need to look to that state or country’s own laws regarding the issue of whether a person is an independent contractor or an employee. As for whether I can answer you regarding your personal situation, that depends on the facts at hand and whether you are located in California.
  3. Does the presence of a noncompete agreement in an independent contractor agreement automatically render that agreement unenforceable or automatically mean that person is an employee rather than an independent contractor? No. Again, the presence or lack of a noncompete in an independent contractor agreement is just one of many factors to consider when tasked with trying to determine whether a person is an employee or an independent contractor.
  4. Is there ever a good time to put a noncompete agreement in an independent contractor agreement? Sure. If the independent contractor you’re hiring is doing something very similar to what kind of business you’re running before you hire her as an independent contractor and plans to continue doing the same after she’s finished her tasks with you, then you may want to have a noncompete in there. But just be aware that you may find that person should probably have been classified as an employee given their similar skill set to what you’re doing as well as the presence of the noncompete.
  5. Will you help me litigate my case on the issue of independent contractors and employees? No. Sorry. I have no interest in litigating. My practice is almost entirely business transactional (I draft contracts and other business documents as well as file and prosecute trademark and copyright applications) except for the rare trademark or copyright case that requires court action. Moreover, I am certainly not an employment attorney, and there are plenty of good attorneys out there who only handle employment law issues.
Eric Norton

Eric Norton

Business & Trademark Attorney at Norton Law Corporation
Eric Norton is a business and trademark attorney, and the founder of Norton Law Corporation, a modern law firm designed to help entrepreneurs with their legal needs. Eric also enjoys photography, gaming (tabletop and video), watches, and good design.
Eric Norton

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