allie-smith-guiOdhRLT8M-unsplashGone are the days when people put in their thirty years at a single company and retired with a gold watch and a pension. Mobility is not only necessary, it's the preferred option for many people who hope to rise through the professional ranks more quickly than the old-school approach of waiting your turn and paying your dues. Such movement isn't a problem or most employees with most companies, but in some instances, there are questions of proprietary information that might walk out the door with some key employees without due consideration to protecting it, or even with it.

One recent case involves the Hershey Company and a former executive accused of stealing trade secrets on his way out the door to a rival company. In its lawsuit against Doug Behrens, the former president of Hershey's Amplify brand of healthy snacks, the company accuses the exec of lying about his future plans as he prepared to exit, claiming that Behrens knew he was taking a position with Kind (makers of granola bars and other snacks) while professing to be unsure of his future plans.

Beyond just moving to a competitor, Hershey also claims that Behrens emailed over 100 sensitive Hershey documents to his personal email address within the last weeks of his employment — documents containing company strategy and organization and an Amplify customer list. Further still, Hershey contends that Behrens owes the company $250,000 or a signing bonus as well as shares of the company for his breach of contract.

All of this is of course alleged, and the court case might ultimately prove the allegations lack sufficient merit or substance. But it does highlight the challenges of both protecting trade secrets and getting companies to take trade secrets as seriously as they should. There are no preventative legal steps to be taken, like filing for trademarks or patents, and so it falls on companies to put their own measures in place. And even then, with all the right safeguards in place, you're still at the mercy of those with access — yet another argument for thorough vetting in the hiring process. You can of course take purported violators to court, as Hershey is doing, but the damage is done; the secrets are out of your door, even if the court eventually finds in your favor and remands the information and documents to you.

The lesson, as always, is to take your IP seriously, as seriously as you take hiring. Include non-compete clauses as needed, and outline safeguards for trade secrets and the penalty for violations, You can't legislate below-board behaviors entirely, but you can do your utmost to keep your secrets in house.