Good job, Microsoft

February 24, 2009, 3:52 PM UTC

msftFair’s fair. I teased the Viziers of Vista (MSFT) yesterday when they requisitioned some dough from those whose severance they overpaid. Yesterday the Company took a deep breath, bethought itself, and reversed its policy. In fact, CNET reports that that head of Human Resources herself made the calls to the 25 folks involved. 

Later in the afternoon, Microsoft issued the following statement:

Last week, 25 former Microsoft employees were informed that they were overpaid as a part of their severance payments from the company. This was a mistake on our part. We should have handled this situation in a more thoughtful manner. We are reaching out to those impacted to relay that we will not seek any payment from those individuals.

There are several things notable about this development. First, it’s interesting that somebody at Microsoft actually thought it was worth hitting up the 25 people for the approximately $5,000 they were each overpaid. That’s $125,000 that the billion-dollar organization was trying to recoup.  Yes, times are hard. But that hard?

Decisions made under stress are often not the best ones.

But congratulations, Microsoft. I know how hard it is to reverse a company decision once it’s made. Lots of meetings. Lots of people sitting around and wondering whether the story will go away if you just ignore it for a day. And it’s true. A lot do. The blogosphere is an angry, stupid beast. It feeds on meat and plant material alike, the innocent as well as the guilty, and as soon as its belly is full it moves on to the next meal with virtually no memory of the last. So it’s tempting to simply lie very still while the predator snuffles at you or even gores you a bit, waiting for it to cast its eye on a subsequent victim. Nobody ever got a second round of poison in their eye for sitting quietly and doing nothing.

So once again, congratulations, Microsoft, and most particularly to Lisa Brummel, the HR executive who, I bet, said, “I’ll do it,” and picked up the phone and told each one of the overpaid 25 that they could keep their cash. When a decision like that is reached, in the end, there’s always one person who has to say, “Enough talking already. I’ll do it.”

But wait. Congratulations, as well-earned as they may be, may also be premature. So disgusted is the American public with corporations, with large corporations in particular, and with certain large corporations specifically, that the vast majority of us have no room in our hearts for understanding or forgiveness or even a little bit of the benefit of the doubt. 

Why do I say that? Because in a poll taken since Microsoft made its rather sensible change of course, 84.9 percent of the nearly 1000 people queried said that the Company did it to “save face.”  Another 6.1 percent said “it wasn’t that much money,” and only 9% opted for “because it was the right thing to do.”

I wonder what the number was before I voted. Because you know what? That’s what I believe. I believe somebody at Microsoft had a human thought and said, “Hey, this is stupid, we’re taking money away from people we just fired. Let’s bag it.” And then they did the right thing.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that it wasn’t that much money.