Scott R. Flick: Heard About the FTC’s Ban on Non-Competes? The Truth Is Worse

On Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission announced a new rule banning employee non-compete agreements, treating them as harmful and an “unfair method of competition.”  This includes non-competes in the broadcast industry, where they serve a vital purpose that was given short shrift by the FTC.  Stations spend large sums of money and airtime promoting their on-air talent, building that employee’s brand with local viewers and listeners and conferring on them by association the public goodwill the station has built up in its community over many decades.  It becomes far more challenging to make that immense investment if your anchor can move across the street to a competitor and immediately transfer all of the goodwill associated with that tremendous multi-year investment to a competing station.

In adopting the ban, the FTC effectively treated non-competes as what lawyers call a “contract of adhesion”– one which a potential employee has no choice but to sign without negotiation, regardless of how draconian the terms.  That is, of course, a poor description of contracts with on-air personalities, which are often heavily negotiated with commensurate levels of compensation.  It is also worth noting that in adopting its one-size-fits-all ban, the FTC bemoaned the fact that a non-compete forces a departing employee to leave the area if they wish to continue doing the same type of work.  Of course, moving to a different market to advance a career is the norm rather than the exception in broadcasting, regardless of any non-competes, particularly given the small number of employers hiring on-air talent in any one market.

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