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Jimmy John's is a company that makes workers sign non-compete agreements.
Jimmy John's is a company that makes workers sign non-compete agreements.
Gilbert Carrasquillo—Getty Images

If you signed a non-compete agreement before you started your job, you're in good--if annoyed--company.

A recent White House report found that 18% of American workers are currently restricted by non-compete clauses. If you've never signed one--or even if you have and had no idea what it was--a non-compete is a legal agreement that prevents an employee from leaving a job at one company and taking a similar one with a competing company, for a specified period of time.

Of the workers who have signed non-competes, fewer than half say they had access to trade secrets that a potential rival company could take advantage of. What's more, 37% of workers say they have signed non-compete agreements at some point in their careers.

While engineering and computer/mathematical occupations have the highest prevalence of non-competes, the agreements aren't exclusive to highly-skilled professions. For instance, 15% of workers without four-year college degrees are subject to non-competes, while 14% of employees earning less than $40,000 a year have signed a non-compete. That's despite the fact that employees in both sectors are about half as likely to possess trade secrets than more highly educated and higher-earning counterparts in the work force.

The driving force behind the popularity of non-compete is likely workers' lack of knowledge about the agreements. A 2012 survey finds that more than 70% of workers were not told about the non-compete clause in their job offers. Instead, they were asked to sign after they had accepted the offer--and potentially turned down other offers. It also found that very few workers ask about the terms of their non-compete or try to negotiate with their prospective employers.

In one of the most puzzling and criticized example of non-competes, fast food sandwich chain Jimmy John's requires workers to promise they won't work for a competitor, defined as a nearby business that derives at least 10% of its revenue from sandwiches, within two years of leaving their job. Specifically citing Jimmy John's, two senators introduced a bill last summer that would prohibit the use of non-compete agreements for employees earning less than $15 an hour, $31,200 a year or the minimum wage in the employee municipality. It would also require employers to tell prospective hires that they may be asked to enter into such an agreement.

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Still, there are some sensible explanations for why companies demand employees agree to non-compete clauses. Some research suggests that stronger non-compete enforcement is correlated to more firm-sponsored training. Apparently, firms are more willing to invest in workers when managers believe the employees are unlikely to quit and take their knowledge and experience elsewhere.