From an antitrust perspective, firms that compete to hire or retain employees are competitors in the employment marketplace, regardless of whether the firms make the same products or compete to provide the same services. It is unlawful for competitors to expressly or implicitly agree not to compete with one another, even if they are motivated by a desire to reduce costs.
Violations of the antitrust laws can have severe consequences. Depending on the facts of the case, the DOJ could bring a criminal prosecution against individuals, the company, or both. And both federal antitrust agencies could bring civil enforcement actions. In addition, if an employee or another private party were injured by an illegal agreement among potential employers, that party could bring a civil lawsuit for treble damages (i.e., three times the damages the party actually suffered).
An individual likely is breaking the antitrust laws if he or she:
- agrees with individual(s) at another company about employee salary or other terms of compensation, either at a specific level or within a range (so-called wage-fixing agreements), or
- agrees with individual(s) at another company to refuse to solicit or hire that other company’s employees (so-called “no poaching” agreements).
Naked wage-fixing or no-poaching agreements among employers, whether entered into directly or through a third-party intermediary, are per se illegal under the antitrust laws. That means that if the agreement is separate from or not reasonably necessary to a larger legitimate collaboration between the employers, the agreement is deemed illegal without any inquiry into its competitive effects.
Going forward, the DOJ intends to proceed criminally against naked wagefixing or no-poaching agreements. These types of agreements eliminate competition in the same irredeemable way as agreements to fix product prices or allocate customers, which have traditionally been criminally investigated and prosecuted as hardcore cartel conduct. Accordingly, the DOJ will criminally investigate allegations that employers have agreed among themselves on employee compensation or not to solicit or hire each others’ employees. And if that investigation uncovers a naked wage-fixing or nopoaching agreement, the DOJ may, in the exercise of its prosecutorial discretion, bring criminal, felony charges against the culpable participants in the agreement, including both individuals and companies.
Sharing information with competitors about terms and conditions of employment can also run afoul of the antitrust laws. Even if an individual does not agree explicitly to fix compensation or other terms of employment, exchanging competitively sensitive information could serve as evidence of an implicit illegal agreement. While agreements to share information are not per se illegal and therefore not prosecuted criminally, they may be subject to civil antitrust liability when they have, or are likely to have, an anticompetitive effect.
Additionally, merely inviting a competitor to enter into an illegal agreement may be an antitrust violation – even if the invitation does not result in an agreement to fix wages or otherwise limit competition.
Reports can be made to the Division through the Citizen Complaint Center by e-mail (email@example.com), phone (1-888-647-3258, toll free in the U.S. and Canada, or 202-307-2040), or mail (Citizen Complaint Center, 950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Room 3322, Washington, DC 20530).
Reports can be made to the FTC through the Bureau of Competition’s Office of Policy and Coordination by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), phone (202-326- 3300), or mail (Office of Policy and Coordination, Room CC-5422, Bureau of Competition, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580).
In my opinion, this not only means that your employer cannot have a gentleman's agreement with a competitor not to hire each other's employees, but that such an agreement is prohibited even when it is done to settle a noncompete lawsuit involving a noncompete agreement of an employee.
If your employer is breaking the law, don't participate in those antitrust violations. You could land in jail. Instead, report them to the Department of Justice or the FTC. If you are the victim of a no-poach arrangement, contact an employee-side employment lawyer in your state.