Can South African companies stop workers from using their training at a different job?

Hiring new staff usually comes at great expense to employers, who place them on intensive training programmes soon after they take up employment.

With continuous changes to technology and systems, this then often continues for the duration of the employment relationship.

For years, employers have sought to protect their businesses from the loss of confidential information and client connections, by inserting restraints of trade into their employees’ contracts. These will generally protect against such risks.

However, the days of employees working their life-long careers for a single employer is something we seldom see these days and a variety of questions arise when those trained up employees resign and leave, together with the substantial investment made in them, says Nicholas a director at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr.

“The question that is then often asked, is whether the employer is at liberty to restrain the employee from utilising the skills and training at their new employer,” he said.

“Put differently, are skills and training ever protectable under restraints of trade agreements?”

Case law

This principle was addressed in the case of Aranda Textile Mills v Hurn, said Preston.

“In this case, the employer sought to enforce its restraint of trade provisions against its employee who had resigned, and to prevent him from taking up employment with a competitor company.

“The contention, however, was that enforcement of the restraint would protect the employer’s investment, money and training which had been expended on the employee,” said Preston.

Importantly, and aside from confidential information and client connections which are generally protectable under restraints of trade, the court commented that an employee’s skills and abilities are a part of the employee himself and that the employee cannot ordinarily be precluded from making use of them by a contract in a restraint of trade.

As such, where employers have gone to the trouble and expense of training an employee in a particular field of work (thereby equipping the employee with skills he/she may not have gained elsewhere) the court confirmed that the law does not vest the employer with a proprietary interest in the employee, his know-how or skills.

“The court ruled that such a restriction would impinge on the employee’s ability to compete freely and fairly in the marketplace and would be unreasonable and contrary to public policy,” said Preston.

“Furthermore, to enforce a restraint of trade purely on the basis of protecting skills and know-how which is already in the public domain, would offend against these principles.”

When considering whether to enforce restraints of trade, employers should be aware that only confidential information (including trade secrets) and client connections are protectable, not the training and skills that the employer has armed the employee with and at its expense, Preston said.

“To ensure that employers are not left out of pocket, training agreements with payback clauses can be entered into, which provide for instance that the company will fund your short course, but that if you leave within 12 months thereafter, the employee agrees to pay the cost thereof back to the employer either in its entirety, or on a pro-rata basis,” he said.

“Restraints are thus not the appropriate means to protect against such risks,” Preston concluded.

Read: South Africa is in desperate need of these 10 job skills

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Can South African companies stop workers from using their training at a different job?