Large businesses understand that the turnover of employees is inevitable. Opportunities arise that result in a trusted staff member leaving the organization. However, in many cases, trust in that individual was, at best, misguided, as the now-former colleague left with invaluable trade secrets.
While working at Google, Anthony Levandowski’s had his eye on furthering his career at Uber Technologies Inc. When the high-profile rideshare company finally hired him, he left his former employer with 14,000 sensitive files housed on his personal computer, 33 of which were trade secrets from the Alphabet company.
Instead of Uber, Levandowski’s next “gig” saw him sent to prison for 18 months.
Understanding the Ease of Losing Trade Secrets
Levandowski’s lesson is also a teachable moment for all businesses. If Google can lose trade secrets so easily, any company can suffer the same fate. The term itself is vague as far as to what constitutes a trade secret. It may all come down to what the company considers its exclusive property. In Levandowski’s case, the plea agreement saw him convicted of taking only one “trade secret,” a weekly project-tracking spreadsheet.
Most of these disputes are settled out of court, equally advantageous for a company that wants to avoid bad publicity. These “out of the public eye” agreements can allow workers to voluntarily return files or subject their computers and smartphones to inspections that ensure no documents from their former employer remains on hard drives.
Settlements can also take the form of post-separation agreements where former staffers are forced to stay away from specific industries and projects for a set amount of time.
Trade secrets are a valuable asset to any company. Whether the protection is proactive or reactive, the safety of intellectual property can mean the difference between a business’ success or failure.