In this briefing, we describe how certain employment practices, such as no-poach or wage-fixing agreements, may infringe competition law, a topic that has recently taken centre stage in the US and is also firmly, although more discretely, on the radar of antitrust authorities in Europe, but perhaps not yet on that of companies. Here is why it should be.

HR practices are already an antitrust enforcement priority in the US

HR practices are already high on the enforcement agenda of US antitrust agencies. In 2010, in a highly publicized move, the US DOJ brought civil enforcement actions against eight high-tech companies (including Google, Apple, Pixar, eBay, Intel, Adobe) which had entered into “no cold call” agreements. More precisely, in the midst of a talent war raging in the Silicon Valley, companies agreed not to solicit or hire each other’s highly skilled and sought-after employees, such as hardware engineers and web developers. The DOJ concluded that these agreements were per se antitrust violations. The US FTC also brought cases against similar practices.

The situation took a new turn in 2016 when both agencies published a joint Antitrust Guidance for Human Resources Professionals. In these guidelines, the US regulators stated that, going forward, this type of practices would be prosecuted criminally.

In 2018, the DOJ investigated two major rail equipment suppliers, including German group Knorr-Bremse (and its newly acquired former French competitor Faiveley), for having agreed to not solicit, recruit or hire each other’s employees without a prior approval of the current employer. However, since the violations took place and ended before the issuance of the 2016 guidance, the DOJ did not criminally pursue them, but brought a civil action which was ultimately settled. In 2018, various US States also investigated no-poach clauses in contracts between fast food companies and their franchisees.

There is also concrete – but more discreet – enforcement in the EU

Turning to the EU, (i) neither the European Commission nor the National Competition Authorities appear to have made policy statements about antitrust enforcement against employment practices and (ii) no enforcer has had the opportunity to date to investigate a case turning solely on employment-related issues. However a closer look at national enforcement reveals more activity than first meets the eye and infringing HR practices, broadly falling into three categories, have been addressed and sanctioned in various cases:

  • No-poach agreements: As described above, a no-poach agreement is a horizontal agreement between two companies not to solicit/hire each other’s employees. These covenants can occur in high specialized working environments where there is a shortage of skilled workers and employers want to preserve the investments made in training their personnel; they could also conceivably occur for less skilled positions in local markets with low unemployment rates. Examples of enforcement in the EU include a case in the Netherlands, where fifteen hospitals entered into a joint agreement named “Working and Educating together”, according to which, among other things, when an anaesthesiologist stops working for one hospital part of the agreement, he/she had to wait at least 12 months before working for a competing hospital. In another case in Spain, eight companies in the road transport freight forwarding industry entered into no-poach agreements which provided that the involved parties could not hire employees working for a competitor without prior approval. Other cases of no-poach enforcement have also been reported in France (PVC flooring, see below) and Croatia (IT services).
  • Wage fixing agreements: In a real competitive labour market, companies should set their own salaries and employment conditions; wages-fixing between competitors would therefore be treated similarly to price fixing. These agreements may also tackle different types of compensation other than salaries. For instance, in the above mentioned Dutch case, the hospitals did not only arrange not to poach each other’s anaesthesiologists, but they also agreed to fix the overtime payment due to their employees.
  • Exchanges of sensitive HR information: While in the antitrust focus is generally on exchanges of commercially sensitive information (such as prices or production costs), recent cases confirm that the exchange of sensitive personnel-related information may also raise competition concerns. For instance, in 2017, the French Competition Authority fined three leading PVC and linoleum floor coverings manufacturers for having, in addition to entering into a gentleman’s agreement not to solicit each other’s employees, exchanged confidential information related to salaries and bonuses of their staff.

Five take-aways for European companies

  1. Antitrust enforcers in the US or in the EU (or for that matter in Asia, where the Japanese and Hong-Kong authorities have made specific policy statements) will treat labour markets as any other market. In the words of the DOJ, “the same rules apply when employers compete for talent in labor markets as when they compete to sell goods and services.”
  2. The list of competing employers with whom a company should not engage in the above practices can go beyond direct business competitors and expand to companies with which you may compete for a particular talent pool. This makes the monitoring of HR practices all the more delicate.
  3. Antitrust enforcers will not think twice before sanctioning HR-related antitrust infringements that come to their attention: you should treat this as an established infringement and ensure compliance on a worldwide basis.
  4. This is not to say that all HR practices with competitors are prohibited. There might still be some scope in specific circumstances to agree with a competitor on a non-solicitation of employees (e.g. where such agreement qualifies as an ancillary restraint in the context of an acquisition or of a joint venture) or to exchange employment-related information as part of a benchmarking exercise provided that it is structured in a competition law compliant manner.
  5. At a minimum, going forward, HR professionals and managers in charge of recruitment should be systematically included in your antitrust compliance programme and initiatives and the specific prohibitions applying to their function should be covered in existing compliance materials. If you feel that further steps might be warranted for in the form of drafting specific guidance, conducting further internal reviews or risk mapping assessments, we will be happy to assist you in devising and implementing an appropriate action plan.

In an unanimous decision, the Supreme Court has gutted the Second Circuit’s rule on deference to a foreign government’s interpretations of its law, holding that a federal court determining foreign law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 44.1 should accord “respectful consideration” to a foreign government’s submission, but a court “is not bound to accord conclusive effect” to these statements.

The case is Animal Science Products, Inc. v. Hebei Welcome Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., which began as a multi-district class action alleging price fixing claims vitamin C exports sold to U.S. companies. Initially, plaintiffs won at a jury trial after the district court refused to credit the Chinese government’s statements that it compelled the defendants to fix the price and limit the supply of vitamin C. Then, the Second Circuit reversed, holding that the district court was  “bound to defer” to the Chinese government’s interpretation of its laws when the latter “directly participates” in U.S. proceedings through a “sworn evidentiary proffer regarding the construction and the effect of its laws and regulations,” as long as it is reasonable under the circumstances presented.

As previewed in our earlier analysis, this case has important repercussions for any business involved in cross-border transactions. We explore these further below in light of the Supreme Court opinion.

First, businesses whose operations span jurisdictions with potentially divergent legal regimes will need to continue to assess the conflict of law that may arise. The Supreme Court’s opinion makes it evident that “the appropriate weight in each case will depend upon the circumstances” when a federal court must make a decision about a foreign state’s view of its own laws. In practical terms, this may mean that businesses who want to engage in a certain type of conduct may want to analyze in detail any statements made by a foreign government that might be related to the contemplated behavior. As the Supreme Court acknowledges, “no single formula or rule will fit all cases in which a foreign government describes its own law.” An analysis would need to be undertaken of many factors, including each statement’s “clarity, thoroughness, and support; its context and purpose; the transparency of the foreign legal system; the role and authority of the entity of official offering the statement; and the statement’s consistency with the foreign government’s past positions.”

Second, our earlier analysis posited that a Supreme Court ruling which limits the deference afforded to a foreign government’s interpretation may in fact incentivize regulators to cooperate with each other early on in the course of an investigation or enforcement to avoid any potential conflict. The Supreme Court has done just that with its rejection of the Second Circuit’s “highly deferential” rule. And, somewhat presciently, it appears that Makan Delrahim, the Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division, has begun to already make strides in bringing further convergence to the processes of antitrust enforcement. Recently, Delrahim announced a partnership between the United States and other leading antitrust agencies to finalize and join a Multilateral Framework on Procedures in Competition Law Investigation and Enforcement (“MFP”). The MFP will seek “meaningful compliance among competition agencies” on advancing competition through compliance mechanisms. Delrahim discussed the compliance mechanisms not as “establishing a formal and binding dispute settlement mechanism” but ensuring “sufficient incentives to comply with the common commitments.” If the MFP goes forward, it remains  an interesting question as to the degree of deference accorded to statements of MFP enforcers under the Supreme Court’s more flexible rule.

Finally, the Supreme Court’s opinion is a validation of the past and current administration’s approach under the Antitrust Guidelines for International Enforcement and Cooperation (2017). As the Guidelines and the Supreme Court amicus brief by the U.S. government assert, the weight accorded to the views of a foreign government depends on the circumstances. What this means for businesses evaluating agency enforcement likelihood is that the Guidelines will likely continue to be leaned on by this current administration.

Please join Steptoe partner Jonathan Sallet and Professor Jonathan Baker on Wednesday, February 28, for a discussion of antitrust enforcement activity in the US and what could be in store as we move into 2018.  Key issues to be discussed include enforcers’ new emphasis on vertical theories of harm when reviewing mergers; how two-sided markets should be assessed when defining product markets; and renewed questions about the nature and evidence of competitive harm that must be shown, particularly regarding prospective buyer power.

Please join Steptoe’s Antitrust Team on Wednesday, November 1, for an in depth discussion of criminal antitrust enforcement against employee no-poaching agreements. As detailed in our earlier blog post, on September 12, two high-level officials of the US Department of Justice (DOJ), Antitrust Division confirmed the Trump Administration’s continued enforcement efforts against agreements among companies not to “poach” each other’s employees or on setting employees’ wages. Two such investigations are going on now, and more may arise. The Obama Administration’s decision to make violations criminal dramatically raised the risks for human resources and other senior company executives who set employee policies for their companies. In this webinar, we will delve into how these developments affect your business.

On September 12, Andrew Finch, the Acting Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust in the U.S. Department of Justice, confirmed the Trump Administration’s commitment to the criminalization of agreements among companies not to “poach” each other’s employees and agreements on employees’ wages, policies advanced significantly during the Obama Administration.

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