Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Diversity Hiring as a...."Protectable Business Interest"

Just when I think there are few unexplored topics on here, I check my Google news alerts to see what new interesting non-compete stories pop up. And sure enough, we get a real doozy.

IBM has sued its former Chief Diversity Officer, Lindsay Rae McIntyre, who left to join Microsoft. The fulcrum of IBM's suit is plainly stated in its brief seeking a temporary restraining order:

"By taking the identical job at Microsoft, and bringing the highly confidential and competitively sensitive information she knows about IBM's diversity data, strategies, and innovations, McIntyre threatens to disclose and use IBM's valuable business secrets for the benefit of one of IBM's most significant competitors."

The TRO brief goes on--for fifty pages--to say basically the same thing. Workplace diversity is important. IBM is a leader. Microsoft is behind. Customers want diversity in employment. And that diversity leads to greater innovation.

Fair enough.

But is this really a business interest that a company can protect through a broad non-compete?

The concept of workplace diversity is no doubt important (and IBM is apparently very good at it), but wouldn't firms who are successful at recruiting and retaining diverse workforces want to publicize that fact? And wouldn't tech titans want to promote not only top talent that it brought into the fold, but how it was able to get them to the company in the first place?

The IBM filing also reveals a problem in non-compete suits that festers incessantly. It's one thing to identify a broad strategy (here, hiring and retention of diverse candidates) as "confidential." But it's then quite another to introduce evidence that disaggregates something specific from that which is in the public domain already.

This seems especially difficult when the claimed protectable interest concerns broadly stated hiring goals or achievements, at least some of which certainly get into the public domain. The position IBM asserts necessarily assumes a corporate culture that is on par with Microsoft (which its filing suggests is not the case at all) and assumes that the workforces are susceptible to having one crossover employee implement or replicate the same hiring tactics on diversity. And it further assumes that Microsoft will want to copy IBM altogether.

It is relatively unusual to see (sustainable) non-compete cases that involve a protectable interest you cannot directly monetize. Most involve sales executives or managers, or those who create and develop intellectual property or other consumable products. The interest in those actions has a direct nexus to sales and customer goodwill. In IBM's current suit against McIntyre, however, the reference to goodwill is starkly indirect--that is, good hiring practices create a good culture which ultimately strengthens the corporation's overall position in the market.

The interest IBM asserts also invokes the notion of "embedded knowledge"--the collective experience an employee brings to the new job simply by being an employee. That is, knowledge at a very high level is a transferable, natural right that a non-compete shouldn't be able to protect. Many corporations do, to be sure, and a great many attorneys feel right at home arguing that knowledge barriers are just fine and dandy. When those suits arise, and the case becomes one about embedded knowledge, it becomes awfully difficult for a court to deconstruct that abstract or collective knowledge gained from concrete secrets deployable somewhere else.

When that happens, sometimes it is easiest for courts just to pivot back to the most obvious, natural theme--one plainly obvious from the first five pages of IBM's own case. Do we really want to restrict an employee from leaving to help other organizations diversify their workforces? This one is a real head-scratcher.

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