You probably missed this recently, another lawsuit, another former employee ‘allegedly’ stealing company secrets and taking them to their new employer who just happens to be developing the same or similar product as their past employee. This one is interesting because it evolves one of the company that everyone in tech seems to want to work for, Tesla.
Here the information on the lawsuit:
Tesla filed a suit against its former director of Autopilot, Sterling Anderson, on Thursday, alleging he attempted to recruit engineers from Tesla to join the self-driving startup he and the former CTO of Google’s self-driving arm, Chris Urmson, were establishing.
The suit further alleged that Anderson downloaded “hundreds of gigabytes of Tesla confidential and four proprietary information” documents to his personal computer. When he was terminated, Anderson returned the documents, but not the backups he created, the company alleged.
In addition to making offers to a dozen Tesla employees — only two of whom accepted, according to the suit — Tesla is also alleging Anderson worked on the company Urmson was starting, called Aurora, during company time. Recode first reported that Urmson was starting his own self-driving company and that he was recruiting big names from many players, including Tesla and Uber.
There’s always two sides to every story, but this one always plays out about the same way. The original company hires you, trains you, develops you, gives you the opportunity to be a part of something great. The employee then says “F-you, I’m using all of this knowledge to benefit someone else. I mean it’s my brain, not yours.”
That’s really the extent of every employer-employee betrayal, like this one. Of course, in their minds, both sides are correct.
The reality is, and Mr. Anderson knows this, he would have never gotten the information into his brain if he Tesla never put him in a position, and billions of dollars of development, to get such knowledge. As you can imagine, Telsa feels betrayed. Mr. Anderson feels like he’s completely innocent. The courts will decide.
This has gone on since the beginning of time and will continue. Companies spend way too much money on developing ideas to have them just walk out the front door. As of today, it’s illegal for companies to kill employees who try and take this knowledge to the competition or start their own company on the back of all the work they got from their previous employer.
Here’s what I know. As a leader, you never forget this betrayal. You can forgive, but you won’t forget. It’s less about the ‘stealing’ of secrets and more about the break in trust. You were a part of the team, and you decided to leave and go play for the other team (and you took our playbook!). That employee will be forever dead in your eyes. They burned the ultimate bridge.
The employee would argue the other side. “Hey, wait, I should be able to take my skills and work anywhere I want!” For many employees, this is the case. For some, for those who get brought into the ‘circle of trust’ and get to see the secret sauce recipe, you give up this right. Or at least, you give up the right to go to another employer and share trade secrets. The line of betrayal is fine and sharp. You never really want to find yourself on either side of it, because no one wins.
Some employers completely deserve to be betrayed. Yes the employee took company secrets. What caused them to do it? Where they unappreciated, did they feel used? They did the work, management took the credit. Or was the work and credit shared? Sometimes people are not respected for their contribution and effort.
That is the ultimate betrayal. And yet even small betrayals are painful. When employees leave to go to another company in a more ordinary situation than described above or even just to another department, managers often feel hurt, guilty