A former Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation chief digital officer has filed a lawsuit against the organization, claiming he was misled about the scope of his job during his recruitment and that he was terminated for clashing with executives who didn’t believe in his new role.
Todd Pierce, the former chief digital officer, joined the Gates Foundation in early 2015. He was previously a senior vice president at Salesforce, where he claimed in court documents he was making a $1.5 million annual salary and had several million in future stock options that hadn’t vested yet. His time at the foundation ended approximately 18 months later.
At the time, the foundation said his departure was a mutual decision and thanked Pierce for his contributions, “including assembling a strong leadership team, investing in the broader IT team’s personal development, and for pushing us to take risks and leverage digital tools (social, mobile, analytics, and cloud) to accelerate the foundation’s core work.”
In a statement responding to Pierce’s complaint, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said it “disputes the allegations and will defend against them vigorously.” The complaint was filed in King County Superior Court last week and first reported today by the Puget Sound Business Journal.
Pierce said he was approached by Bill & Melinda Gates COO Leigh Morgan, with whom he previously worked at San Francisco biotech company Genentech, in August 2014 about joining the foundation. Pierce claims in court documents that he was told his position would be strategic in nature, and he would be responsible for transforming the foundation’s use of technology.
Pierce said he was not interested in a traditional IT role. Pierce claims Morgan told him that a chief digital officer position focused more on strategy than day-to-day IT work and was supported by key executives at the organization, including CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann, another former co-worker of Pierce’s at Genentech, and Bill Gates. The lawsuit alleges the foundation then eliminated the position of chief information officer and replaced it with the more strategic title of chief digital officer.
“Within the first year of employment, it became clear that Morgan’s representations of Plaintiff’s role, and that she had ‘buy-in’ from important executives at the Foundation, were untrue,” according to the lawsuit. “It became clear that several did not know of his expanded role and others did not agree with it. Plaintiff found other members of the Executive Leadership Team were openly hostile to Plaintiff’s role.”
The lawsuit alleges that most fellow executives wanted him to stick to technical fixes. By spring 2016, the lawsuit claims, he had clashed with several executives who wanted the foundation to get rid of him. Pierce was terminated in October 2016.
Pierce is asking for damages that account for past, present and future wage losses as well as reduced earning capacity and the lost stock options from Salesforce. He also wants to be compensated for “emotional distress” that came from doing a different job than the one he was recruited for.
“During his exit interviews with several co-workers, they admitted that the job he was expected to perform was not the job he had been promised and that he hadn’t been told the truth about his position,” according to Pierce’s claim. “They also confirmed that no one recognized the depth of disarray of the existing technology at the Gates Foundation, and that it was unreasonable to expect he could fix it in the short time he was there.”
Here is the full complaint: