While it’s easy to say that the very largest tech companies are fierce competitors, it appears that ferocity doesn’t apply to all aspects of their business. Or at least, it didn’t.
Several high-profile executives of big firms have been – or soon will be – questioned regarding their efforts to not hire each other’s staffers. Current media darling Sheryl Sandberg — currently COO at Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) and a former VP at Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) — is the most recent exec to be ordered to testify about her company’s actions concerning hiring and recruiting. Execs’ obligation to talk about company policies may open those companies to lawsuits. That may explain why no one at any of these firms wants to open up about it.
At issue is an informal agreement that several firms had about not actively pursuing each company’s employees. According to court documents, companies as non-diverse as Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL), Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG), and Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) all settled a similar suit with the U.S. Department of Justice for an undisclosed amount and a promise to abandon the policy going forward.
Still, the settled DOJ suit hasn’t prevented more of the same. Recently, Intuit Inc. (NASDAQ:INTU) and eBay Inc (NASDAQ:EBAY) were both subject to a DOJ suit – still unresolved – about entering into an agreement with each other. The best guess there is that it’ll end the exact same way.
Competing Means Not Colluding
What this tells me – and should tell investors – is that the big companies that people like to invest in and talk about are less competitive than we’ve commonly thought. While they like to portray an image of straightforward capitalistic growth, these businesses are quite willing to take care of each other to provide stability. While this can mean good things for investors, it can mean bad things for the employees working for those companies.
That, in turn, can come around to hurt investors even more. While the DOJ settled against Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL), Google and Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB), the employees who were locked out of applying for jobs didn’t. A group of those people are currently suing several of the firms, and seeking class action status.
While I can’t help but think they’re spitting into the wind to go against the financial and legal muscle that these firms can bring, the potential payoff for high-profile lawyers is essentially unlimited. If a ruling comes down against these five firms (and possibly others) the payout could be astoundingly big. Similar discrimination suits indicate that each plaintiff could received several hundred thousand dollars from a company. Multiply that by the number of plaintiffs and it could be a serious drain on the company’s cash reserves.