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5 Landmines to Avoid when Interviewing at Competitors

By Parmelee Eastman

As a job seeker, you have to figure out which organizations would value your skill set and experience.  Often they are the rivals of your current and/or former employer(s).

These companies should be interested in hiring you, but you need to watch out for the following landmines that can trip up your job hunt and potentially land you in legal trouble.  Specifically, watch out for these five:

  1. Being interviewed for competitive information when no job is available.
  2. Providing information in violation of a clause in your Employment Agreement.
  3. Accepting a position with a rival very close to your current responsibilities that is forbidden by your non-compete agreement.
  4. Soliciting customers or former co-workers in your new position.
  5. Taking confidential information with you when you leave your employment.
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Being Pumped for Competitive Intelligence

This ploy is not common, but very serious if it happens. You have one or more interviews with a competitor, but there is no job—the competitor is solely seeking information about your current or former employer.

Detecting this behavior is difficult since your employer's rivals can have a real interest in you.  None of these signs are definitive, but they can add up to a pattern:

  • Did some one from the competitor contact you directly to suggest an interview, indicating that they knew about you and your position? Some companies have been known to publish a non-existing opening so a lack of a published job description is not a definitive sign.
  • Do the interviewers have a written job description and a clear business reason for seeking to hire?
  • Are they asking questions about your employer's future plans or directions? They and you should be focusing on your accomplishments in the past (use examples as far back as you can justify), not questioning you on the future.
  • Are they asking questions on areas/functions outside of your responsibilities?
  • Where is the interview taking place? Jurisdictions vary in how they view this type of behavior.

Violating the Terms of Your Employment Agreement

Employment agreements are very common and contain clauses that may restrict your employment options.  Please note that I am not a lawyer and you should seek the advice of a lawyer to discuss your individual situation.  The enforceability of these agreements often depends on your specific circumstances and the state in which you live.

You probably signed an employment agreement among other documents on your first day of work and may not have looked at since then.  It may contain one or more of the following clauses:

Confidentiality or Non-Disclosure:  You agreed not to disclosure to anyone, possibly for a specified time period, confidential information that you learned on the job.  These are also called confidential disclosure, proprietary information, or secrecy agreements/clauses.

Non-Compete:  You agreed not to work for a competitor in a similar position for a specified time frame.

Non-Solicitation:  You agreed not to solicit your employer's customers or fellow employees for a specified time frame.

Ownership of Intellectual Property:  You agreed that the intellectual property that you developed during your employment belongs to your employer, not you.

Before you go on an interview, review the document and ask your lawyer if the laws have changed or if any court cases have changed the interpretation of any of the clauses.

If you are interviewing with an ethical company, telling them that you are restricted in what you can say should not hurt your candidacy.  After all, if you respect your current employer, you will respect them if you become an employee.

Accepting a New Position Similar to Your Current Job

Your current employer may be able to restrict your ability to join a rival in a similar position by claiming that it will impossible to avoid using confidential information in the new opportunity.  Again, it depends on your circumstances.  Your lawyer can advise you. 

Walking out the Door with Confidential Information

You generally cannot leave your existing firm, either involuntarily or for a new position, with confidential or proprietary information.  This is hard because if you want examples of your work and most of it is confidential, what do you do?  You have to search through your work and find the examples that are acceptable to use, or create dummy documents that show the type and amount of effort that you did, but contain fake information.  Not only will your current employer be unhappy with your actions, usually your new employer will not want the information so you are creating a bad impression from the beginning of your employment there. When in doubt, leave it behind.

Bottom Line

In general you need to be aware of the legal issues, think about how you can answer questions about your work without providing any proprietary information, and answer honestly that you do not think you can discuss that issue.  People jump from one competitor to another all the time—you just have to be careful, honest, and ethical.  Employers will want to hire you because of your skills, experience, general industry and product knowledge, not because of specific confidential information.  With some planning and positioning of your positive attributes, you should be well on your way to a new job.


About the author...

Parmelee Eastman is president of EastSight Consulting which helps provide more effective utilization of external information in internal decision-making processes. EastSight Consulting clients range from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies. Prior to founding EastSight, Parmelee was the vice president of the global technology and communications practice at Fuld & Company and employed for 16 years at Digital Equipment Corporation. Parmelee holds a B.A. from Wellesley College and an M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School. She can be reached at peastman@eastsightconsulting.com.


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