Diversity hiring is so competitive, IBM is suing a Microsoft executive over it

Big Blue is not amused.
Big Blue is not amused.
Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid
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Diversity hiring, once a niche pursuit of human resources, has become a major recruiting priority at many US companies. As evidence, IBM is suing its former chief diversity officer for bolting to Microsoft.

IBM accuses Lindsay-Rae McIntyre of violating a non-compete agreement when she accepted a job with the software giant, according to a suit filed in US federal court Feb. 12. The suit contends that McIntyre, a 20-year IBM employee, has in-depth knowledge of IBM’s “diversity data, strategies and initiatives,” and she violated a non-compete agreement by taking “trade secrets” with her when she accepted an identical assignment with Microsoft.

Those agreements are common for executives and high-powered engineers in the tech world (and increasingly outside it, where they’re wreaking havoc) but not so much in the sleepy world of human resources.

Corporations, however, are now paying more attention to recruiting and retaining women and minority employees, particularly since major tech firms began publicly disclosing their diversity employment figures in 2015. As a growing body of research indicates that diverse workforces are more productive and innovative, tech companies have made improving their dismal hiring record a priority.

Microsoft has been accused of underpaying women and faces a gender discrimination lawsuit that could expand to include more than 8,600 women. The company, which says its pay and promotion policies are fair, is overwhelmingly male, according to its own diversity report. Just 26% of all employees, and 19% of tech workers are women, while fewer than 10% of  employees are black and hispanic.

In its suit, IBM huffs that Microsoft is “rated the worse technology company for the employment, pay, and promotion of women.” IBM doesn’t disclose its employee statistics, so we don’t know if its record is any better or worse than Microsoft’s.

In a response filed by McIntyre, she says diversity efforts have to be tailored to the culture of each company and aren’t transferable. “While the work that IBM (or any other technology company) does on these issues may be interesting, it is not practically useful in my role at Microsoft,” she said in a declaration reported by GeekWire.

After decades spent languishing as a corporate backwater, human resources has been elevated in organizational hierarchies as companies realize the importance of recruiting and retaining talent in an information economy. The public squabble over McIntyre may be the sign that HR and diversity recruitment has finally arrived.