Silicon Valley firms are in the thick of settlement negotiations with tens of thousands of employees who say the firms had a pact not to poach one another's employees, an agreement that damaged careers and suppressed salaries.

Meanwhile, from Seattle comes a different model of the employee-employer relationship.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos, in his annual shareholder letter, said he offers employees money to leave.

The way the "Pay to Quit" program at Amazon works, Bezos wrote, is that the company gives employees an annual cash incentive to leave, starting at $2,000, increasing by $1,000 each year until it reaches $5,000. The headline on the employee offer is a plea, "Please Don't Take This Offer."

"In the long run, an employee staying somewhere they don't want to be isn't healthy for the employee or the company," Bezos wrote.

Amazon offers other novel things as well. The online retailer acknowledges that Amazon might not be a long-term prospect for everyone and pays 95 percent of employees' tuition if they want to train for "in demand fields" such as airplane mechanic or nursing, "regardless of whether the skills are relevant to a career at Amazon," Bezos said in his letter.

And Amazon lets its customer service employees work at home; Silicon Valley firms have mostly rejected telecommuting. Amazon's program, picked up from its subsidiary Zappos, is the "If you love them, set them free" approach to the workforce.

To people here, this program may seem like a perverse loyalty test, a kind of Northwestern irrationality. In Silicon Valley, hiring is personal and chief executives are on the front lines finding and, just as important, keeping talent.

Apple's Steve Jobs famously emailed Google's Sergey Brin that "if you hire a single one of these people that means war," which appeared to extend to even former Apple employees. The court documents in the anti-poaching case show that it wasn't just Jobs who was batting away recruiters like the little Dutch boy trying to keep his finger in the dike. Chief executives such as HP's Meg Whitman made calls to stop other tech firms from hitting up key employees.

In the anti-poaching case, lawyers for the employees are seeking $9 billion for as many as 100,000 employees they argue were affected by the conspiracy. If no settlement is reached, a trial is set for May 27, with chief executives likely taking the stand.

Of course, juxtaposing Bezos' letter and the anti-poaching case is not a perfect comparison. Tech firms' strive for the so-called "10X" engineer, one who can do the work of 10 engineers and change the course of a company. That's different from Amazon's managing its warehouse and customer service workers.

And Amazon is not considered by all to be a workers paradise. Warehouse workers, in particular, have at times complained or even sued the firm over issues such as overtime pay and working conditions.

An Amazon spokesperson said a small percentage of the more than 40,000 warehouse employees who qualify for "Pay to Quit" have taken the company up on it.

But would a "Pay to Quit" program work in Silicon Valley?

"The highest-performing companies I know are the ones with the most intense sense of engagement and commitment at every level," said William Taylor, founding editor of Fast Company. "Pay to Quit creates an invitation, once a year, for people to ask themselves how committed they really are, and makes it easy for them to leave. It's like a performance review in reverse -- front-line workers evaluate how the company is treating them and whether or not it pays to stay."

It may be "advantageous for some Silicon Valley employers dedicated to keeping the best and brightest talent, and only talent fully committed to their organizations," said Scott Dobroski, Glassdoor career trends analyst. "Incentivizing employees to quit who are not fully dedicated can act as one way to weed out the type of employee an employer doesn't want and make room for those the employer does want."

A Pay to Quit program could be a recommitment ritual, a bracing way for employee and employer to decide whether it is time to call it quits or keep going. A no-fault divorce of sorts.

It has to be more straightforward and less exhausting than trying to stop people from leaving or the world to stop knocking on employees' doors.

Contact Michelle Quinn at 510-394-4196 and mquinn@mercurynews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/michellequinn.