Rising above the mental block that comes with non-compete agreements

Bob Pudlock

Bob Pudlock


Don’t let non-compete agreements hold you back from exploring better career options. 

As an executive recruiter with Gulf Stream Search, I have worked and tiptoed and danced with employers and candidates in extremely narrow niches where “everyone knows everyone”, trade secrets abound and non-compete agreements are common.

At Banyan Bridge Group, my real estate company, I also work on behalf of companies within the real estate ecosystem and know the personal, professional and emotional dynamics present when agents, brokers and franchise owners want to slip out of their current deals.

On my search projects, I’m always set back when I engage candidates during confidential searches and they claim they are content with their current positions due solely to a non-compete clause in their contract.

That bums me out.

They’ve literally admitted to being a form of indentured servant, someone who has no choice to stay in a job for fear of retribution if they were to pursue a job in the same field for same or higher compensation and rank.

What also bums me out, and what made me write this over 10 years ago, is any attempt I make in the moment to dissuade them from standing pat is seen as self-serving.

They think I’m just trying to push them to switch jobs for a fee, despite the legal jeopardy they think they will be in.

The other more personal reason is I hate to see people suffer in situations where there is an alternative and one that’s more likely to be a career and life-changer for them.

Yet they stick where they are and don’t even engage.  

The fear of the non-compete cripples them into non-action before they even hear about the role.

To that end, here’s some basic, common sense principles to help you navigate the tricky waters of non-competes. 

Don’t steal, even if you “think” you built it and it is yours

If you attempt to take intellectual property or customer data for your own future use or for someone in your new company to use, you deserve any penalties that come your way.

Full stop.

Don’t gossip.  Don’t play games!  

Don’t share sensitive information about clients, products, or processes with prospective employers or anyone who might benefit from it. 

This violates the spirit(a legal term) of any employment contract and will land you in legal AND financial trouble.

Don’t be a jerk!

Treat your past or soon-to-be past employer with respect, even if they’ve never given it in return.

Avoid talking poorly about them, taking customer lists, or acting out of spite. 

Do this in spite of how they’ve treated you, or how you feel, or how satisfying it is for you to disparage them.

Keep your motives in check and focus on your personal growth and happiness.

If you’re struggling with that, you can use this mindfulness exercise in this post to get you through the anger.

Quit with class and a clean conscience.

Remember, you have the right to pursue your happiness and advance your career as long as you don’t harm or steal from your current employer. 

Qualify your value to this new employer

Why are you being courted by other companies?

Your “value” to other companies SHOULD be based on your expertise, industry knowledge and abilities INDEPENDENT OF whatever material contributions you’ve made specifically for your current employer.

In other words, are you being valued because of your fundamentally sound sales skills, your ability to communicate compelling concepts and deliver presentations across multiple platforms?

Can you code and solve highly complex solutions in any industry?

Are you being valued because of your ability to identify new revenue streams with existing customers?  

Do they believe you walk on water and can help them design a better mousetrap in THEIR company?

Is your potential employer willing to carve out certain products or accounts in order for you to start fresh and clean and to avoid the perception of wrongdoing?  If so, do they STILL see value in you?

These are green flags.


Are you being valued because your potential employer wants you to move a long-standing account with X, Y or Z company to your new employer?

That’s a red flag. 


The problem with “stepping aside for a year”.

For individuals who don’t want to stir the hornet’s nest by going to a competitor, taking a non-related job far outside your non-compete reach is an option.

However, doing so may a) reduce your long-term earning power b) decrease your present day market value, and c) diminish your financial contributions to your family, goals, and retirement. 

This “path of least resistance” might harm your career, leading you to stagnate rather than taking the opportunity to propel from one industry leader to another.  

To sit out a year can be an option that’s “personally injurious”, to use fancy legalese. 

The problem is, it’s a self-inflicted injury. You only have yourself to blame.

You CHOSE to take a pay cut and a diminished title just so you didn’t rock the boat with your current employer. 

In the end, you succumbed to the scare tactic that is the non-compete.

Employment Law

Employment law in the US is not designed to punish employees who seek personal happiness.  

Don’t let ANY employer tell you what’s best for you, nor pressure you into any form of indentured servitude.

On the flip side, investors, founders, shareholders and your co-workers have invested time and energy into their company and their careers.  

You don’t have a right to dilute their personal investment by stealing from them and personally enriching yourself.

You, just like the founder, have spent a lifetime building your personal equity through osmosis, educational investment, and on-the-job training. 

So have your co-workers.

As long as you refrain from harming or stealing from an employer, you have the right to capitalize on this investment on your terms.

As long as you don’t inflict financial harm on anyone else. 

Here’s how these things typically play out

Here’s what can happen when you move on.

It’s not going to be easy or amicable.

You may get threatened.

You may have an icy exit interview.

Your current boss may not like your explanation on why you’re leaving.

You may receive a letter from a corporate attorney.

You may be asked to sign an affidavit saying you agree to do what you’ve already agreed to do in your non-compete(my favorite).

You may be looked at with contempt by those you left behind(contempt or jealousy or respect, whatever….).

By the way, I’ve had all these things happen to me early in my career.

And I’ve counseled and coached dozens of high-level professionals through the nonsense that’s been thrown their way.

If handled appropriately, you’ll be able to live and work happily ever after.

In some circumstances, you may agree to an employment addendum that limits your interaction with a particular client or product for a period of time.

That addendum will include a clause saying you can’t turn ANY information over or discuss it with someone else in your new company to pursue.

Again, as long as you don’t intend or create direct financial harm to a past employer, and conduct yourself accordingly….you’re practicing high character, equitable, and respectful behavior.

So play your career search out – use a recruiter who’ll maintain discretion and help you navigate the waters.

Engage an attorney skilled in employment law in the state you work.

Preface any dialogue with the attorney AND your potential new employer with the condition that you won’t do anything to cause financial loss, slander, or harm to your current employer, and play it out.  

Be intellectually honest

Don’t use a non-compete clause as an excuse for not exploring other opportunities.

Don’t allow a non-compete to stop you from taking calls and considering a change – you owe it to yourself.

This isn’t a marriage. 

You’re not in a committed relationship, however many times your employer says you’re part of a “family.”

You’re allowed to go on dates. 

As many as are necessary to find what you’re looking for.

Just be emotionally and intellectually honest. 

Walk in the other person’s shoes

When employers get brutally honest with me about the non-competes they have employees sign, here’s what they say.

“I just want to protect what I and my employees have built.”

That’s fair, right?

You would want to be treated the same way.

As an employee, you don’t have the right to determine whether the owner / entrepreneur or son or daughter who inherited the business “deserve” what they have.

And a judge or arbitrator will agree, regardless of how you FEEL or how much contribution you think you’ve made as a sales person or developer.

Here’s what to do next

Use a recruiter who’ll maintain discretion and help you navigate the waters.

You can email me privately if you need someone to bounce ideas off.

I don’t recommend attorneys but happy to point you different ways or check your thinking.

Engage an attorney skilled in employment law in the state you work.

That will always be my first point of advice.

I usually don’t recommend that until later in the interview process.

Preface any dialogue with the attorney AND your potential new employer with the condition that you won’t do anything to cause financial loss, slander, or harm to your current employer, and play it out.  

Do the right thing

As an employee considering a competitor – allow everyone, even your previous employer, to pursue and protect their business and everything THEY built up, and move on. 

There will be edges and gray areas – that’s where both sides … adults … work out the edges and separate amicably.  

It happens every day.

As long as you stay clear of doing anything that directly harms the other party, big or small, I encourage you to pursue your career dreams with conviction and a clear conscience.

This is not legal advice – consult an employment attorney(engaged by you, not your prospective employer) with experience in your state to gain more insight into your current employment contract.  

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