Perhaps a new rule would make it mandatory for any company about to embark on something new to be required to take a minute, go outside the building, and ask the nearest non-employee something, anything, could go horribly wrong with this plan.
For example, as you may have read, Microsoft this week sent out a letter to some recently-layed off employees informing them that their severance package was a bit too big, and that the company wanted its money back. This, as you can imagine, hit a lot of people especially hard. You’ve just gotten your check and begun budgeting what little money you have to get through the indefinite period in a down economy until you find your next gig . . .and now the company that just fired you wants you to write it a check. Ya think this might have been handled a bit more smoothly? Or, maybe not even handled at all?
First of all: a letter? Microsoft admits that yes, it did send out the “whoops, we overpaid” letters. But let’s backtrack a bit. If we’re not talking about a lot of money per employee, why even ask for the money back? I know that every dollar counts to a company, but sheesh. Here in California, we’ve just been told by the government that we might get IOUs for money they owe us. Times are really tough, and everyone (including, I admit, the press) is looking super closely to make sure companies and government officials are towing the line. Which is why, even though it may have been for legitimate training purposes, Wells Fargo should not have scheduled an employee trip to Las Vegas last month. Did it not learn from the AIG backlash? Wells Fargo should have asked its own passing stranger for a reality check.
But this isn’t the same thing. Microsoft isn’t asking for billions of taxpayer dollars. It’s a self-made business giant that many of us in the business & tech press see as a company that can, potentially,help our economy out of this mess. It’s created countless jobs, enormous wealth, and has contributed mightily to our country’s -and the world’s- economy. But .. is that what people are saying about Microsoft now? No, my guess is that folks are peeved — no matter what they think of the latest version of Vista, or the Zune. Had the company just eaten a couple million bucks (if it was even that much) would it have really hurt the stock price?
Someone inside Microsoft should have thought twice about the potential blowback of asking laid-off workers to return some of their severance money, no matter how honest the company’s intentions. I’ve also read that some of the severance packages were discovered by Microsoft to be too small, and the company is correcting that as well. Good for Microsoft. This could have been a PR win for the company if it stuck to those letters.
I’m often asked why reporters are so cynical. It’s a fair question, but I always answer it by saying that if we are, we shouldn’t be. I prefer skeptical. I try to look at everything (at least) twice, and get as many differing opinions on it, before writing about it. If I ran a tech company, I’d encourage some of that same skepticism. Maybe I’d even hire an official company skeptic. He or she would be the person we go to when a decision is 99% made. We’d ask, “What do you think of us sending letters to recently canned employees, asking for some of their severance money back?”
What do you think that person - especially if he or she took a moment to stroll outside — would say?