Trade Secrets

The One Question All Businesses Must Ask About Protecting Trade Secrets

The One Question All Businesses Must Ask About Protecting Trade Secrets
Image credit: laffy4k/Flickr

It seems like threats to trade secrets and proprietary information are increasing exponentially. News reports of large-scale data thefts have become an almost daily occurrence.

And employees are likely to switch jobs, taking proprietary information with them. Meanwhile, technology has increased the risk of inadvertent disclosure since most employees are walking around with critical business information on their smartphones. The sad reality is that your proprietary information and trade secrets have never been at greater risk.

This leads to the question all company executives must ask: What am I doing to create a culture of protection at my company?

Related: The Balancing Act: Sharing Data Versus Guarding Trade Secrets

Company culture comes up in a lot of settings, but not often enough in the context of protecting proprietary information and trade secrets. Since your employees are on the front lines, working with your trade secrets, they need to have protection top of mind. In my experience as a lawyer handling trade-secrets misappropriation cases, I have frequently seen companies that treat protection as an afterthought suffer the consequences of having critical information end up in a competitor’s hands.

Creating a culture of protection is not easy. It takes a clear strategy, implemented consistently over time. Start when employees are hired, with trade-secrets training included in the onboarding process and repeated regularly. But training is not enough.

Trade-secret protection needs to be a part of every employee’s daily routine. The goal is to build habits that decrease the risk of disclosure. At a company with a strong culture of protection, these habits become second nature.

Related: Is Your Company's Data Safe in the Cloud? (Infographic)

For example, employees need to lock their computers every time they leave their workstations. They should make sure they share proprietary information only with those who need access to it. They need to be aware of and on the lookout for suspicious activity, including spear phishing scams (often presented as an email manipulated to seem as if it came from a trusted source).

And they need to know exactly how to handle documents containing trade secrets or other critical proprietary information.

At the risk of sounding like a speaker at a corporate retreat, culture starts at the top. Employees need to hear from the company’s most senior executives that trade-secret protection is one of everyone’s core job responsibilities. Implementing and enforcing a formal trade-secrets policy is a good first step, as this can create a framework that leads to a protective culture.

Now is the time to consider your company’s culture of protection. This culture has never been more important. If your company falls short, it’s not too late to make changes.

If you don't have a formal policy concerning trade secrets or need to discuss ways to improve your company’s protection of them, speak to an attorney who specializes in this area.

Related: The Metcalf Sniper Attack and Its Lesson for CEOs