For the third time in two years, HP has filed a lawsuit to stop a former employee from going to work with Cisco – in one case, almost half a year after the employee had left HP in a voluntary reduction-in-force. As headhunters and other companies are flooded with resumes from HP employees seeking safe ground amidst the chaos of executive turnover, we can probably expect to see more desperate moves to lock up human capital. In an unhappy work environment, it’s a strange decision to try to achieve employee retention by litigation. And it can’t help recruitment efforts when it seems the corporate slogan could be changed from “HP Invent” to “HP Sue.”
HP has a heritage as a proud California–based company. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard built their world-class organization in the one state that won’t generally enforce employee non-compete clauses. In Silicon Valley, human capital is as mobile as financial capital. Employees’ freedom to find the best way to use their skills and advance their careers is a key factor that has driven the development of Silicon Valley. Trade secrets are protected by intellectual property laws, not by non-compete agreements and vague theories that a new job would “inevitably” cause an employee to use trade secrets of his or her former employer. Somehow, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard didn’t see a need to build a company based on suing people who might want to leave. As HP has grown in states other than California, however, it’s tried to impose restrictions on employee mobility.