A 'Grey's Anatomy' Love Contract

Everyone from my mother to my postal carrier has been buzzing about "love contracts" in the workplace since "Grey's Anatomy" popped that fateful question earlier this month:

"Which of your co-workers have you slept with, and could you please put that in writing and sign on the dotted line?"

Thing is, most of us will never see a love contract in the workplace like Meredith Grey and her fellow employees at the fictitious Seattle Grace Hospital did.

"The love contract was popular about 10 years ago around the time of the Monica Lewinsky thing," said Garry Mathiason, an employment lawyer with the law firm Littler Mendelson in San Francisco and one of the contract's creators. But today "it's a very rare occurrence."

Instead of making pledges of love, the average working Joe or Jane is far more likely to be asked by an employer to pledge their "noncompetition," "nondisclosure" and "nonsolicitation," usually in the job-offer letter or employment contract they're given to sign upon landing a new position.

And while it may not be as sexy as pondering who's hooking up with whom in the supply closet, knowing exactly what employment terms you're agreeing to -- and whether there's any wiggle room (so to speak) -- is every bit as important. In some cases it could greatly affect your livelihood should you leave the company.

Noncompete Clauses

The biggest thing to pay attention to in an employee contract is any noncompete language it contains. A noncompete clause can state that you won't moonlight for the competition on the side and that you won't work for a competitor within a certain geographic range (for example, a 50-mile radius) for a specified period of time after leaving the company (often a year to 18 months, though it can be as much as five years).

So does that mean if you lose your job or jump on a better offer, your hands are tied and you can't work in the same industry for however many months the contract specifies?

Not necessarily. Employees successfully negotiate these clauses away or down to a shorter time frame all the time, Mathiason says, especially those at the higher rungs of a company. And I can tell you from 16 years of my own experience that freelancers and contract employees do, too. Many free agents won't even work for a firm that insists on a noncompete.

Nondisclosure Agreements (NDAs)

This one's pretty much a no-brainer. The company doesn't want you to divulge its trade secrets to anyone, especially its competitors, ever.

Just be sure you understand exactly what's meant by "trade secret." It's probably not just your employer's top-selling soda recipe or the proprietary code for its leading software application.

"Trade secrets include things like a list of customers or a process for the way you go after a certain customer," said employment contract lawyer Shannon Whitemore, who practices independently in Seattle.

Nonsolicitation Language

If you get a new job with another company, your former employers won't want you to poach their clients. Likewise, the nonsolicitation language in your contract may prevent you from taking your office mates with you to your new gig.

This can get squishy if you're in a sales-driven profession. But Kristen Fife, a technical recruiter who works independently in Seattle, has a suggestion. Let clients know what firm you'll be moving to and that while you won't be contacting them, it's fine if they want to reach out to you.

"It's just common sense," she said. "If you're leaving, don't spout off and tell everyone you're leaving company A to go to company Z and you'll see them in the marketplace."

Consult a Lawyer

If you don't understand the terms of your contract, ask your human resources department to go over it with you, or consult an employment contract lawyer who's familiar with your industry. State laws on various employment contract provisions vary wildly -- for example, most noncompete clauses aren't even permitted in California -- so be sure to hire a local lawyer.

Employers will grant you a few days to review an offer letter or employment contract, so "not having the time" is no excuse for signing blindly. Neither is "really, really needing the job." Some contracts are overly restrictive, plain and simple; the career equivalent of a Donald Trump prenup. After all, they're written by lawyers hired to protect the employer, not the employee.

So if you think that the contract you've been offered stinks to high heaven, or that some of its terms conflict with, say, the fact that you're a silent partner in the family business or an inventor on the side, get some legal advice and try your best to negotiate.

"Generally, the terms become more negotiable the higher up the chain the employee is going to fit into the company," Whitemore said. But if the terms aren't something you can live with, it's important to try to improve them from the get-go. You won't be able to change them later.

Finally, if you think accepting a new job offer might put you in violation of your contract with your current employer, definitely talk to a lawyer. Do not talk to your current employer's HR department about this first; its primary loyalty is to the company, not you.

Your new agreement may not be as sexy as a love contract, but follow these guidelines and you'll definitely come up with a contract you can love.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author, and former cubicle dweller. Her books -- "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work, and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com