As an employee, you get exposed to the inner workings of your employer’s business.
Your employer may teach you their methods and strategies, and expose you to their most important customers and suppliers.
Some of that information can be extremely important to keep secret, and some of it simply becomes absorbed into the development of your skills. But you might not have known any of it had you not worked there.
When it comes time to move on, part of what will make you attractive to your new employer is what you have learned in your previous roles. They may expect you to share what you know.
But can you share the information you have learned in your old job? Isn’t it your old employer’s property? If so, to what extent are you allowed to use it?
EMPLOYEES CAN’T USE CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION
Whether or not you have a specific clause in your employment agreement, you must not use any of your employer’s confidential information for your own benefit or to help someone other than your employer.
This applies even after you have stopped working for your employer.
For how long, you ask?
That’s right. This is one obligation that never ends.
So it becomes really important to sift through what you learn in your job, and work out what is confidential and what is not.
THREE TYPES OF INFORMATION
The courts have recognised three broad categories of information that an employee might deal with in the course of their employment, which may or may not be confidential.
Trivial or Public Information
This category of information would include advertised prices of goods or the company’s business address, which can be found in the yellow pages or on their website.
Information like this cannot be regarded as confidential because it is already available to the public.
These are the sorts of secrets that give an employer a competitive advantage. Their publication could cause serious harm, so they are closely guarded.
Other clear confidential information might be customer and supplier lists.
But there is a third category of information, the confidentiality of which can be a bit harder to discern.
This is information that your employer conveys to you in a confidential setting to enable you to do your job.
It might be information about the company’s strategy to win a greater market share. Or it could be about how to run an internal process that is critical to the operation of the business.
To some extent, you can’t simply erase the knowledge you have acquired. If it represents a good way to practice business, then it will be part of why your next employer hires you – you understand how to get a greater market share or improve a business process. It’s what we call “know-how”, or the way you do things.
That know-how, that skill that has become part of you, is yours to use for the benefit of your next employer.
There is one caveat, though: you can’t memorise confidential information simply for the purpose of applying it for your own or other people’s benefit.
Deliberately memorising your employer’s key customers and contact details would not be treated as yours to do as you please with. Know-how is the type of knowledge that has become part of you as a result of your employment and training at your employer’s business – not because you tried to retain it to use elsewhere.
There will be some knowledge that you acquire during your employment that becomes innately part of who you are. You pick this stuff up by absorbing the practices of your workplace. It may mean that you become a better employee, and you may even be head-hunted for those increased skills.
While you can’t use your employer’s confidential information for any purpose other than your employer’s business, the skills, habits and abilities that you develop while working, become part of you and can be used elsewhere.
Be careful though, because your obligation not to share truly confidential information never ends. And such information won’t become part of you simply because you have memorised it for the purpose of sharing it with your new boss.