This is Part Two of a two-part blog series on the role your human resources department can play in implementing your company’s IP policy. Read Part One here.
When it comes to protecting your company’s IP assets, it’s important for you to take a proactive stance — starting as early as the interview and hiring process. As a first step, employees should sign employment agreements, setting out (among other things) their obligation to protect the the company’s confidential information and other IP assets. And when an employment agreement isn’t used, employees should sign a written statement agreeing to the company’s policies on confidential information and IP protection.
But you must also follow through on these policies to ensure that confidentiality concerns remain top of mind for your employees. In this post, we’ll outline the best practices you can take to consistently reinforce your company’s expectations and IP policy over the course of an employee’s tenure, and when offboarding an employee.
Communicating IP policies during employment
It’s important to set up ongoing awareness and education campaigns, and also to take precautionary measures against any technology-related oversights.
1. Training and education in company IP policy
Consistently reminding your employees of your company’s IP policy may help prevent accidental disclosures. On top of being laid out in employment agreements and written training materials, your company’s IP policy should be emphasized through a formal training course for all new employees.
Subsequently, your IP policy should be communicated in written documents available to employees for reference, and further reinforced through at least one “refresher” course per year.
2. Enacting “bring your own device” policies
One of the most common ways confidential information gets “leaked” is through your employees’ personal devices. If your employees are bringing their own phones or laptops to work, you need to make sure that they don’t accidentally or intentionally use their device in a way that could compromise your company’s proprietary information.
Policies you could enforce include:
- Encrypting or password-protecting all devices
- Monitoring all file-sharing methods, like external drives and cloud-based platforms
- Monitoring email accounts
- Prohibiting the use of cameras, including those on personal phones
- Disabling USB ports on devices
- Implementing a social media policy to determine what work-related information can or cannot be shared
- Immediate reporting in the case that the device is lost or stolen
- Reserving the right to wipe devices, whether on-site or remotely
3. Restricting employees’ access to confidential information
Employees should only have access to the information they need for their job. In other words, access to highly sensitive information should be limited to people who really need it. For example, your marketing team may not need to receive information about your latest invention, especially if it hasn’t been implemented in a product yet.
If an employee can access trade secret information, they should be told that it’s a trade secret, and instructed on how to handle trade secrecy.
4. Offering incentives and rewards for employees who create valuable IP
The most effective way for your company to track the IP that an employee has created is by encouraging employees to document their contributions by submitting invention disclosure records (IDRs), which often go by other names such as “invention memos” or “invention disclosure forms.” Basically, it’s an internal document where employees provide all the relevant details about their company-related inventions.
Completing an IDR often requires a lot of work, so your IP policy should include some incentive or rewards for employees who create and report valuable IP. For example, companies often provide cash bonuses, stock options, or recognition for employees who submit IDRs, are listed as inventors on patent applications, or are listed as inventors on issued patents.
To help employees who are engaged in research and development figure out when to submit IDRs, you may want to educate these employees about the inventions your company has already patented or obtained trade secret protection for, as well as what ideas may generally be patentable or protectable by trade secrets.
How to enforce effective offboarding strategies
Whether your employees depart voluntarily or not, take steps to ensure that confidential information doesn’t leave with them!
1. Revoking access to any confidential information
Depending on the employee’s role and ability to access information, you’ll need to monitor all locations where the employee could have stored information.
At the most basic level, the employee must remove all company e-mail, documents, and information from their personal devices, like their smartphone and laptop. They’ll also need to return all physical materials that belong to the company (like work laptops), and destroy any physical materials in their possession (such as by shredding documents or disks).
2. Performing an exit interview
The exit interview is your best opportunity to check in with a departing employee, and ensure that they no longer possess or have access to any confidential information.
In the exit interview, you should remind the employee of their obligations as outlined in their original employment agreement or company IP policy, and review a checklist of the materials and data that need to be returned or destroyed. To conclude, have them sign a statement affirming their continued confidentiality obligations.
If you aren’t able to conduct an exit interview and have the employee sign this statement in person, you could send them a letter reminding them of their obligations instead. If necessary, you may even include a copy of their signed employment contract.
3. Following up with subsequent, competing employers
In the event that the employee leaves to join a competitor, you may want to send a letter to the new employer to inform them of the employee’s confidentiality obligations to your company.
Maintaining a company culture of confidentiality
While you should establish expectations upfront about how employees should handle confidential information, it’s also critical for you to continue enforcing an internal culture that values confidentiality through education, training, and strong offboarding policies.
It also doesn't hurt to make the documentation process straightforward to use: You can streamline the process of completing an IDR by offering a template that covers all the bases. If you don't have one, download our FREE template to immediately get started with documenting your inventions!