For most employees, a non-solicitation clause should be all that is necessary if an employer is seeking to protect his/her business interests (clients) from employees who leave to a competitor. However, employers must be careful with the wording of such clauses because the clause must only go as far as necessary to protect the employer’s business interests. This is the ‘reasonableness’ standard with which the courts will review a non-solicitation clause. Any restrictions on the employee’s freedom to work must be necessary to protect the employer’s business or the clause will be unenforceable.
Non- Solicitation Clauses
There are a few things that a non-solicitation clause must contain to be enforceable. The clause must have a limited geographic scope and time in place that is reasonable. Further, a non-solicitation clause must be limited to the act of solicitation. If the wording of the solicitation clause goes beyond the solicitation of the employer’s client base, then it is likely to place unreasonable limits on the employee’s ability to freely compete and earn a living. Lastly, it is wise to limit the act of solicitation so that it is not too burdensome. This may entail only restricting the solicitation of the clients that the employee dealt with or the types of clients that the employee works with. To better understand the limits of a non-solicitation clause, the case of Donaldson Travel Inc. v. Murphy et al. 2016 is useful to review.
Donaldson v. Murphy, 2016 (Superior Court of Justice – Ontario)
In the case, Murphy was a former employee of Donaldson Travel that left to work for a competitor company named Goliger. One of Donaldson Travel’s claims was that Murphy solicited clients and therefore violated the non-solicitation clause that Murphy had signed. The clause reads:
Mary agrees that in the event of termination or resignation that she will not solicit or accept business from any corporate accounts or customers that are serviced by … Donaldson Travel, directly, or indirectly. (emphasis added)
The court deemed this clause unenforceable for several reasons. Firstly, there was no limit in time and geography. As it is worded, this clause would never expire and would apply anywhere in the country. This is unnecessary to protect Donaldson Travel’s business interests. Secondly, the phrase “or accept business from” goes beyond the act of solicitation. This places an unreasonable restriction on Murphy’s ability to earn a living because it is not necessary to protect Donaldson’s business interests. Lastly, the term “any corporate account” is also too broad. It would be reasonable to limit the solicitation of clients that Murphy dealt with; however, the wording here would prevent Murphy from conducting business with any clients of Donaldson, even the ones that Donaldson establishes after Murphy had left. This is not needed to protect Donaldson’s business interests by the departure of Murphy.
The burden is placed on the employer to carefully draft such clauses and to show that the clause is reasonable. The wording of the clause is important as the courts will not look beyond the wording of the clause, nor will they change the clause so that it is legally enforceable. For employees that are not in a managerial role, a non-solicitation will almost always suffice in protecting an employer’s business interests. It is important to seek the assistance of an employment lawyer when seeking to protect business interests through non-solicitation clauses.