Keeping Workers from Stealing the Store

How can you stop employees stealing your customers and ideas? Insisting that they sign a noncompetition contract is a good start

By Karen E. Klein

Q: I am a freelance translator with more work than I can handle, but I'm afraid if I hire other translators they will steal my customers -- especially if I give them the customer-specific glossaries essential to quality translation. What should I do?

M.B., Slovenia

A: Turning over proprietary materials and valued customers to your competitors is a scary thing for any small-business owner. Still, business is all about taking risks -- making acceptable gambles, calculating tradeoffs, and protecting your company as thoroughly as possible in the process.

Look at it this way: You want to grow, so it's a great thing to have more work than you can handle alone. Unless you clone yourself, or use technology to make yourself more efficient, you'll eventually have to bring in help -- or turn away new customers.

Protect yourself by thoroughly interviewing and checking the backgrounds of the people you hire. Ask them about their goals, and discuss specifically whether they want to start their own business someday. Talk candidly about the boundaries you need to draw in order to trust them with your proprietary materials. Don't bring anyone on board you don't feel you'll be able to trust.


  Find out what legal protection exists in your country for business owners facing these issues. In the U.S., your lawyer could draw up a "noncompete agreement," which you could oblige all current and prospective to sign before allowing them access to your translation materials. Your subcontractors' signatures on those documents would stop them disclosing trade secrets or soliciting your customers. (For more information on U.S. non-compete agreements, see --

Even with the agreements signed, you'll still have to learn to trust your instincts when it comes to choosing the right people. Manouche Ragsdale, who owns a French translation agency in West Hollywood, Calif., says 99% of her hires have been extremely ethical, if only out of self-preservation. "If you get a rotten apple, their actions usually blow up in their face, because a translator who becomes known for stealing clients is more or less finished in the business community," she says. Be aware that when you hire freelancers, some of them also use subcontractors, and make sure that your noncompete agreement covers that second tier of workers, too.

Stay smart, but don't stay too safe. Absolute caution will never translate into business growth. If you can't make a leap of faith, you're doomed to stay very small.

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