I was an executive for an IT staffing company for 30 years and consistently volunteered in the public schools and community as a mentor, teacher, and coach for STEM education. The company was happy to take credit for my work. When the owner of the company made his son-in-law president about a year ago, I was let go.
I signed a separation agreement not to work for their customers or competitors and not to create a competing training program for one year without obtaining written permission. I have been very careful not to violate the agreement and have gone a full year without working or getting a paycheck to wait out the non-compete.
I had asked the company for and received full clearance in writing to continue my long-term assistance for a local nonprofit that provides technical training to inner city and undeserved citizens. A new class that I helped develop just graduated from the nonprofit. It was more successful than anyone expected. Every single one was offered an IT job. Upon hearing of the success, the son-in-law told the head of the nonprofit that they never intended for me to provide that much help and my non-compete was still in effect. Yesterday I received a cease and desist letter from the company's attorney demanding I quit assisting the nonprofit and threatening other action going forward as if the non-compete had not expired. What should I do? Is there anything the nonprofit can do to protect its volunteers?
Having sat out a year from gainful employment, I would immediately consult with an attorney familiar with the limitations of non-compete agreements. I doubt that the standard non-compete provision prevents an employee from volunteering for a nonprofit that is not, as you said, a customer or competitor of the employer. Even if the agreement did prohibit such help, it sounds like you may have obtained the necessary approval. If you have a good relationship with the owner, ask your lawyer if it might be appropriate to talk to him before going head-to-head with the son-in-law.
The lawyer’s letter sounds like the typical bluster of a bully. Cease and desist letters are often designed to intimidate, not to resolve issues reasonably. An attorney who can counter the assertions with facts, reason and the law may be able to get the company to back off a losing case.
Your biggest leverage may be the adverse publicity that the company would suffer if your case became a media phenomenon. It is hard to believe that they would like media coverage about their efforts to deprive inner city residents of a path to good jobs and self-sufficiency, especially when they took such credit for the help a few years ago. The nonprofit exec and the students could be great witnesses in a public relations campaign if you have to go that route. Hopefully you won’t, but you don’t want to have to go another year without getting a paying job.