Shielding your business’s intellectual property (IP) should be pretty straightforward: acquire strategic patents, trademarks and copyrights; develop agreements with vendors, employers, suppliers, and partners; and then enforce everything.
Unfortunately, as with many things in business, simple seeming processes can lead to extraordinary complexity. You need to think about how to safeguard the knowledge and relationships that make your enterprise profitable. Here are some useful ideas.
Identify Your Company’s Strategic Assets
What IP, customized processes and other assets could harm your business if they got into the hands of competitors? For instance, have you groomed vendors or suppliers to give you a competitive discount? Have you created processes to “get more for less” from certain techniques? If so, and if your biggest competitor got ahold of these trade secrets, would you suffer? Could you fight back? You need to know where you are vulnerable to create a plan to safeguard the assets.
Establish Employee Awareness of Confidentiality
Employees should sign contracts that address intellectual property and include non-competition clauses. These documents tend to be lengthy, and often people just agree to them without understanding why you are asking them to sign. Conduct training to educate your people about what is in these agreements and why you want them to sign on. Most people are ethical, and they will respect your business’s needs now and in the future if they understand the purpose.
Set Up More than One Point of Contact with Customers
You absolutely want your employees to have good relationships with customers. But businesses built solely on these close points of intimate contact can be surprisingly fragile and brittle. Businesses that rely too much on alliances (as opposed to, say, great systems) are at risk. What if a charismatic VP or executive leaves and takes customers or producers with her? What if personal loyalty transcends loyalty to your business? To protect against such problems, you need to plan. For instance: set up a system so more than one worker has contact with each customer.
Monitor Team Dynamics
Similar situations can arise within internal teams. While bonding between employees benefits the business, you do not want your staff to become overly dependent upon a key player. Such intense loyalty raises the possibility that an entire team will resign if that person goes to a competitor.
Tailor Confidentiality and Non-Competition Restrictions to the Employee’s Role
When an employee moves up to positions of greater authority within your company, review his or her original contract to see whether you need to add more restrictions. The more access a person has to sensitive information, the more demands for privacy you should impose.
Conduct Exit Interviews
When employees leave, remind them of their legal obligations regarding confidentiality. Ask them to delete the proprietary information about your business from their electronic devices. Trust, but verify: conduct due diligence to make sure ex-employees (and ex-vendors and ex-suppliers) follow their agreements, and take action if they do not.