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I am wondering if anyone could help me with a potential work conflict of interest. I am currently working for an agency which offer UX services. I have wanted to learn to code for a while and a friend told me about a free training scheme a big tech company are offering for women. This training course:

  • is held in the evenings so it would not interfere with my working hours,
  • does not lead to a job with the company, though participants are welcome to apply at the end if they wish
  • does not include an expectation to work with the company upon completion of the course

And I made it clear in my application that I intend to stay in UX and simply want to improve my skills by learning to code, not become a full time software dev.

I love where I work currently and simply want to learn about software development as it would be very useful in my job (particularly as we have recently hired for and are growing our development department). This free course is an initiative to get more women working in technology roles, which is why there is no commitment to work for the company in question upon completion of the course.

I have a non-compete clause in my contract which says I must not work for any other competing company during my employment with them and 1 year after ending my employment. technically, the company offering the training scheme is not a competitor. They specialise in software development whereas where I work does not. My question is, does the fact that it is a company which is offering the free training course instead of an educational institution cause a problem with my non-compete or a potential conflict of interest? I know if I was paying for a course from a college or university that there would be no problem.

Also, should I bring this up with my boss and explain why I want to do the course and who is running it? I have not started it yet and so have not informed my employer.

Any help would be much appreciated! I worry that what I am doing may be unethical, but I simply want to learn. I learn better in groups rather than online, which is why this appeals to me much more than free online coding courses.

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    It's nice that you worry about being unethical, but in your case your company's anti-competition clause looks very unethical to me. As an example, there is a tiny number of companies that write software that competes with my company's software, so an anti-competition clause wouldn't affect me much. But if I worked for a company that creates software for others as a service, an anti-competition clause would be a severe limitation. – gnasher729 Dec 4 '16 at 22:56
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    One possible reason that your boss might see a conflict of interest is if the company that offers the course uses this as a recruitment opportunity. That still does not make your attendance unethical, but it might irk your boss. – Eike Pierstorff Dec 5 '16 at 10:19
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    @gnasher729: Non-compete is extremely common, and I don't see how it's "very unethical". If you have a problem with the clause you should negotiate to remove it during the hiring process, but good luck persuading your potential new company that they should allow you to go work for their competition directly after spending time around all their latest gadgets and projects. – Lightness Races with Monica Dec 5 '16 at 10:23
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    Don't worry, the courts have sorted that out centuries ago, when a master craftsman would, obviously, protect himself from an apprentice whom he had trained who then wanted to set up in competition. Restrictions were deemed fine, but not unrealistic restrictions. You could prevent someone whom you had trained from setting up business in your town (for a reasonable length of time), but not from going to the town to do so, nor could you prevent him coming back to your town after “a reasonable time” (you can’t bar it for 20 or 50 years). Is a UX person becoming a coder “competing” ? – Mawg says reinstate Monica Dec 5 '16 at 13:04
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    @gnasher729 These types of non-compete clauses are typical in some areas, although there are restrictions (at least where I am, in the U.S.) as to how much they can claim as "competition". The ones I've seen are typically limited to a specific geographic region, and a specific subset of the development market (e.g. "managed care software development", "financial software development", etc.). Additionally, while they can put extremely broad clauses in the contract, it is my understanding that, as Mawg alludes, if the clause is deemed too broad, it won't stand up in court. – Beofett Dec 5 '16 at 15:19
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Technically, the company offering the training scheme is not a competitor.

Then technically (and actually) you are not in breach of your contract.

Let's imagine having a software contractor friend. Would you feel guilty asking them to explain a programming concept to you? If your answer is no, then you shouldn't feel guilty about joining the course, because the way you've written this seems to make my example equivalent.

An educational institution benefits from your time by providing you education in exchange for money. Your employer benefits from your time by your UX work. The non-competing entity only benefits by looking good in the tech community, because any work you do in their tutorials won't be sold for money. They're advertising themselves to you and others. I don't see how joining their sessions would be immoral.

If still in doubt you can always bring this up with your manager, and I'd be very surprised if the answer is anything other than sure, no problem.

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    If the answer isn't "sure, no problem", that suggests you need to find a new employer - because one that is stupid enough to have a problem with an employee learning more about a job-related skill is bad news. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Dec 5 '16 at 11:49
  • Thank you for your comments, extremely helpful. Very much appreciated. – Amanda Dec 5 '16 at 16:49
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    There are legal issues with non-competes. However, you aren't working for a competitor, you are taking a class. In tech, it is VERY common for companies of all sizes and types to offer free seminars, Meetup groups, lectures, classes, and the like. Your current employer should be encouraging you to gain knowledge and grow. (Yes, these tech companies also use these as recruiting events) One big motivation is the individuals giving it. It is common that the person(s) giving these lectures, classes, etc. are doing it on their own time, often to gain/keep a certification of some sort. – MikeP Dec 5 '16 at 20:10
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    And, if you were my employee, I'd be encouraging this. I'd even work with you to ensure that you got there on time, even if that means leaving early. – MikeP Dec 5 '16 at 20:13
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    Also, technically, you aren't performing any work for them, even if they would otherwise be a competitor. In a non-compete clause, this is a term with a specific definition. – GalacticCowboy Dec 5 '16 at 20:25
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Is there a conflict of interest?

By any reasonable standard, whether ethical or professional, no, there is not.

Will it be a problem for my non-compete?

For an average non-compete clause, taking a training course should never be an issue, regardless of who's organising the course. Non-competes tend to focus on preventing you from performing work for companies that your employer could otherwise hire you out for. In most cases a loss of (potential) income is the standard to meet for something to be prohibited under the non-compete. That said, some companies are known for having rather more Machiavellian ‎non-compete clauses. Whether your specific contract happens to contain a weird prohibition on contacting, visiting or learning from other companies is for you to figure out.

Also, should I bring this up with my boss and explain why I want to do the course and who is running it?

Largely up to you. If you know that your company is rather relaxed about this kind of thing and that it doesn't have a history of viciously enforcing their non-competes then it's fine to ask, if only for your peace of mind.

The fact that it's a type of recruiting event on part of the other company can complicate that conversation as they may wonder if they're about to lose you or jump to conclusions. If you want to avoid that you could remain vague about the nature of your training or avoid mentioning it altogether. You're free to do what you want in your own time after all. As long as your current employer has no other reason to think you're unhappy this shouldn't be a concern though. If you detect some concern on their part you can assure them that you're happy where you are but really, that shouldn't happen.

So with all these caveats out of the way, in the vast majority of companies none of this should concern you and you should feel absolutely free to discuss the course with your manager. Most managers will be happy to see you exploring some technical skills. Expect a joke or two about not abandoning them for the other company.

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    I'd like to add to this answer, that while it's up to you to bring up to your employer if you do the course or not due to ethical reasoning, you might also want to casually mention it just to show you are improving your skills in your spare time. It shows you have ambition, and makes sure your boss knows about the course at the same time, in a casual way. – Davy Dec 5 '16 at 9:13
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    Whilst I can't speak for your specific circumstances, mentioning it in passing to your boss / manager as a positive task (self improvement that has the potential of allowing you to contribute more for your current employer) allows you to put your own (accurate) "spin" on it - whereas if your employer was to find out that you had taken this course, and that you hadn't told them about it - they may wonder why, and put their own spin on it and jump to a negative conclusion. That's not to say that it's a matter of ethics - just a matter of professional courtesy and relationship management. – Danlance Dec 5 '16 at 11:18
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    Thank you everyone for your advice on this. It is greatly appreciated as I felt very anxious about the whole thing. You have all really helped me! – Amanda Dec 5 '16 at 16:48
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I largely agree that this is not a problem.

However, I would take issue with this:

technically, the company offering the training scheme is not a competitor.

You're not the one that should be determining this, unless you want to test your non-compete clause. You should allow your company to determine this (by asking your manager). If they disagree with you on this, they could act on the clause and fire you and/or sue you, and then you'd face a court battle.

I think this isn't a problem because a training course shouldn't ever be a problem (and is clearly not the intent of non-compete clauses, as others have said), but always ask if you are not sure.

  • Thank you Joe, that is a good point. I am going to discuss it with my manager to ensure this isn't the case as I want to stay within my contract and be fair to the company I am working for. Thanks for your help – Amanda Dec 13 '16 at 22:10

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