These days, many skilled employees are branching out on their own, starting up their own small businesses, consulting within their area of expertise, or being hired by the competition. In many cases, these skilled employees may have at one point signed a non-competition agreement with their current employer.
So can your current employer stop you from branching out on your own or going to work at a competing company. In most cases, no they cannot!
Granted there are some cases, usually at the executive level where a non-competition agreement may be enforceable, or when a business has a unique or specialized education is required. Although for most career professionals, an employer cannot prevent you from using your primary skills in obtaining employment, even if it is directly with a competitor. There are a few points of caution that should be addressed.
Employees who branch out on their own, specifically as an independent contractor may run into an issue if they use propriety, company owned client lists, and attempt to bypass their prior employer and sell their services direct to these clients. Now, if you and a client have a working relationship, and both you and the client is in agreement they will bring you on as a consultant, usually your current employer cannot stop this arrangement. But if you borrow, steal, or use a client list to prospect for customers, this can have legal repercussions.
Noncompete, or not to compete agreements must be in writing! All non-compete agreements must protect a legitimate business interest, they must be specific. They cannot prevent unreasonable limits to an individual’s ability to earn a living. When there is a gray area, or a not-to-compete agreement is too general, these contracts often favor the employee.
In addition, non-compete agreements are not forever. Most agreements have time constraints, usually one or two years. And more often than not, only a portion of an agreement is enforceable, such as you may not work in a particular department of a competing company for 1 year. Non-competition agreements are a level of intellectual property protection for a business, however they are not blanket protection for all means of work within a company.