By necessity, remote offices have become at least the short term standard for many California businesses, but in quickly implementing work-from-home programs businesses may not have given enough consideration to the protection of their trade secrets in the process. Employees working from home are likely utilizing their own computers, telephones, and internet services. While businesses can control and implement a certain level of security over these devices and the internet in the workplace, employees working from home may not implement the same practices. Businesses in this situation should remind their employees of any confidentiality agreements they have signed and assist them in setting up a system which will help them to abide by those agreements. The primary goal of taking this action is to protect the trade secrets from misappropriation, but a secondary and equally important goal is to ensure the trade secret status of the information is not lost.
We discussed trade secrets in depth in a previous article, here. A trade secret is information which is beneficial to the company holding the information because the information is not known to others, and which the company takes steps to keep from being discovered by others.
Each of these components of a trade secret is important to address in light of the new work-from-home policies that have been implemented. In fact, even if businesses already had these policies in place, they should be revisited due to the unforeseeable circumstances that now govern remote work. Some of these circumstances include the amount of time employees have been working from home and the fact that employees’ household members are also likely at home for many hours per day while the employee is working.
The following are some actions companies should consider taking to protect their trade secrets:
- Redistribute any existing confidentiality agreements to all employees and reiterate the importance of confidentiality, especially while working from home.
- Discourage hard copies of trade secret documents being taken from the workplace to a home office or being printed at home. If hard copies are necessary, request that all documents be kept in a safe place in the home office so they can be properly disposed of by the business.
- Caution employees about the danger of having others in their workspace where the business’s trade secrets may be viewed or overheard. While employees may not be concerned about their household members misappropriating this information, business’s must take steps to protect the information and maintain its secrecy. Ensuring the information is out of sight and earshot of others is a simple action that can show a business’s efforts to maintain the secrecy of a trade secret.
- Prompt employees to set their computers to lock after a short time of inactivity to protect any information visible on the screen. These computers should also be password protected.
- Remind employees to refrain from emailing documents to their personal emails or otherwise use personal software to facilitate working from home. Some companies may wish to disable employees’ ability to attach documents to emails to preserve trade secrets.
- To the extent possible, encourage employees to work in an area separated from the remainder of the household which can be locked or otherwise secured. This will ensure telephone conversations are not overheard and documents are not inadvertently viewed, thus protecting trade secrets.
- Finally, if employees are using video conferencing, they should make sure no documents are visible in the videos.
Each company is different, which means that there is no universal solution to protecting trade secrets. Instead, each company should assess what their trade secrets are, and determine the best steps to protect them. If you have any questions about how best to go about this, do not hesitate to call us.