An engineer's stock-in-trade is his knowledge. When an engineer works as employee, he gains both specific knowledge of his employer's business and the general knowledge that comes with experience in a profession. When it is time to change jobs or form a new company, it can be very difficult to determine where the employee's general knowledge ends and the ex-employer's proprietary information begins.
The best way to avoid liability is to obtain a written release from the employer that stipulates what information can be used and which, if any, customers can be contacted. These agreements are much easier to negotiate at the commencement of employment. Once the employee is ready to leave, the threat to the employer is much more concrete. Employees who are laid off, or retired early, can often negotiate such agreements as part of their severance agreements. The employee's leverage will be greatest in situations where the employer is anxious for the employee to leave, but has no legitimate grounds for firing the employee.
Employees who are not able to get such a written release from their employers at the commencement of employment should be careful to document their professional development while with the employer. If the employee can show that he gained controversial information from professional journals or non-company educational programs, he may be able to convince the court that the information was not stolen from his employer.
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