Adding my opinion to the molehill

I was going to resist writing about this, but since it relates to recruiting, I feel a little compelled to say something. This is all my opinion, not necessarily the opinion of Microsoft, blah, blah, blah. Also, since I am not naive enough to believe everything I read online, feel free to insert the word "allegedly" wherever you like.

Here's the (alleged) story, if you haven't already been sucked into the mind-numbing vortex of it already:

A person, whom I will refer to as "the employee" worked for Microsoft. They left MS to start up a company of their own. That company was bought by Google. The employee then worked at Google and then decided to return to Microsoft. This person (allegedly) had a conversation with someone that we will call "the recruiter". That person asked some pretty basic questions of the employee about what it's like working at Google. In my opinion, it's the kind of conversation you could overhear eating dinner in Kirkland, but anyway, that conversation (allegedly...ok, I'll stop but you get the point) made it into an e-mail conversation that was shared amongst employees at Microsoft. One of those employees, which I will call "the blogger", decided to start a blog and post much of the contents of the e-mail here. Have fun reading through those comments, but don't forget to come on back here. I've got an opinion to share.

When you scroll through the comments, people seem to get quite passionate about a few topics. It's nice to hear the opinions on both sides, but I will say that some of those people probably haven't had exposure to some of the things I have had exposure to (working for a large company, working in the staffing industry), so I'll throw some of my thoughts out there. Feel free to disagree. The issues I want to touch on:

1) Was it OK for the blogger to post this?

2) Was it OK for the recruiter to share the information beyond the conversation with the employee?

3) Was it OK for the employee to share the information in the first place?

4) What is the role of this kind of information in the staffing industry?

5) Who has a better deal, Microsoft employees or Google employees?

OK, now for the fun part....first question: was it OK for the blogger to post this? No, it was not.

Let me qualify by saying that I don't think that the blogger's intentions were bad; in fact, I believe they were good, if not a tiny bit selfish and way overzealous. The information that was shared seemed fairly balanced to me. It wasn't malicious. It was the observations of an employee that has worked for both companies.  However, it was shared over internal e-mail aliases (distribution lists). It's standard practice at large companies to sign non-disclosure agreements. It appears to me that this person did not honor that agreement if they signed it (and them not signing it would have been a major HR oversight...not very likely). That's pretty straight-forward. It's probably the reason why the person's name is not posted on their blog, which I'll venture to guess was set up for the sole reason of sharing this information...wouldn't be surprised at all if we see nothing more from the blogger. This isn't a judgment; it just goes to the point that I don't think that the person thought through their decision to post this very much. They aren't involved in the blog comments, they haven't completed other areas of the blog. I  believe it was a knee-jerk reaction and this person thought "Hey, Google's not as great as they say they are....check this out". Every employee should feel this way about their company; it's the actions that came out of that sentiment that I question. The content of the original e-mail was something that I would have included in a blog post myself if the employee had given me permission. To be honest, it never crossed my mind, but I wish it had. That would have been one rocking blog post, on my blog, with my name attached, based on an interview I would have done with the employee myself.

There are broader implications for this type of situation beyond the individual blogger's signing of legal agreements. Show me a company that does not discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their competitors and I will show you a company that is either very unsuccessful or that has no competitors...yet. Google employees might say "our recruiting department doesn't ask those kinds of questions about Microsoft" and I will tell you "you are wrong". I have to believe that Google's recruiting department has it together more than to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that their competition doesn't exist. However, if they are neglecting to gather competitive information, as one of their competitors, I'd say, keep doing what you are doing 🙂 Any recruiting department that doesn't investigate their competitors' employment environment (in a legal and professional manner) sucks. Sorry to put it so bluntly.

Anyway, collecting competitive information is what companies do. The market is not a vacuum. People collect information anecdotally or through research and share it with the people inside their company that will benefit from it. Again, I'm only proposing that this should take place legally and of course, people should honor any agreements that they have signed. The information that is shared within the walls of the company (or within the firewalls, as the case may be), belongs to that company (hence the legal agreements). For those sharing the information internally, there is a reasonable expectation that those viewing the mail will honor their agreements with their employer and will not expose the information to those outside of the company. The sharing of information is good for companies. Anything that stifles it, like worrying about whether you can trust co-workers to not blab internal mails, is not good. I don't think that there was anything particularly damaging in the mails, however, the blogger was not at liberty to share them and at the very least caused some annoyance and distraction for others involved. Will others think twice before sharing information that could benefit others in their jobs at Microsoft? How does a company demonstrate that they will not tolerate disregard of employment agreements that people have signed? I'm not encouraging anything specifically. Just suggesting that perhaps without thinking too much about it, this person has discouraged collaboration for the rest of us. Frankly, I'd be surprised if Microsoft investigated who this person is, but at the same time, we all should be bound by the legal agreements that we have signed. At the very least, I'd say a discussion/warning is in order. It's not really my call to make.

For the people that suggest that not sharing internal company information shows a lack of transparency, let me know how you would feel about having your business plans, your budget, your employee performance reviews shared online. Firewalls exist for a reason. Not all company information is for public consumption. Companies exhibit transparency by sharing SOME information online, but you are out of your collective minds if you think that companies should share everything. Personally, I think companies that care about transparency only do so when the benefits of the transparency outweigh the risks of sharing the information. Let's get real. It's hard for me to fathom that people would take such a black and white approach to this.  

 OK, next question: Was it OK for the recruiter to share the information beyond the conversation with the employee? Probably, but it depends.

If the recruiter had a sit down chat with an employee, the employee must have figured out that there was a business reason why the recruiter was asking. It's a totally legitimate business reason too, unless the recruiter was asking the employee to disregard any agreements they had signed with their previous employer. Based on viewing the employees blog (which I am not linking to, I'm sure he's had enough attention), he was mindful of his non-compete agreement. Frankly, I consider this good work on the part of the recruiter. I wish we had the time to do this with every person that we hired; ask them "what was better about your previous employer, what's better about MS, what were the important factors in your decision, etc.". Have I encouraged my employees to have these kinds of discussions with new hires? I'd be an idiot not to. I tend to encourage them to wait a little while until the honeymoon period wears off and we can get a balanced assessment of how we can better share our culture with people outside the company. This is how we, individually and as a company, come to understand our value proposition. That way, we don't spend a bunch of time promoting the fact that we have free Starbucks coffee when what people really care about are the healthcare benefits. The value prop is different to each person but if you ask enough questions of people within your talent pool, you get a great idea of what candidates care about. Pretty straight-forward stuff.

What I don't know about is if there were any agreements between the recruiter and the employee as to whom the information would be shared with. I'd guess that the employee would have assumed that the info would be shared with others and it didn't become a problem for him until people started fussing about it outside the company (see said blog). Again, just my perception...I don't know anyone involved.  If the recruiter told the employee that he would not share the information, then it would be wrong to share it. If that conversation did not take place, then I would think it reasonable for the recruiter to assume that it's OK to share with other MS employees. How broadly the mail was circulated, I don't know. But a person should ideally be able to trust others under NDA <sigh>. Based on the mild nature of the information contained, I don't fault the recruiter for sharing it; based on the public kerfluffle, I may have advised against it in hindsight, depending on how much of a distraction this if for people.

Next question: Was it OK for the employee to share the information in the first place? Probably, but it depends.

Discussing the competition within the bounds of any legal agreements that people have signed, is good business. It should be happening in every department of your company. Let me draw a parallel for  you. Your company makes widgets. Your widgets spin and flash red and purple lights. Your competitor's widgets spin and play music...well, that is what their advertisements say. What they don't tell you is that really, they play "roll out the barrel". That is it...the widgets play it over and over until you want to claw your ears out (I was assured last week that this is possible) and this is information you get by asking their customers. Of course you want this information because when you advertise your product, you may choose a marketing tagline that goes something like this" ours doesn't play 'roll out the barrel'...ever. But now with 25% more purple lights!" It's basic competitive information. Now consider that you are not producing widgets, you are producing career opportunities and your customers are prospective employees. Do you collect information on how well your competitors are serving this same need? You bet your bippy you do (I'm not sure what a bippy is but I'm willing to wager it).

Frankly, I've learned more from people I know working at Google now and their headhunters that have called me. Seriously, it's basic competitive stuff. None of it surprised me; but it was good to see it collected together so you could really get a full picture of what a person's experience could be like there (and yes, mentally I am comparing it to what we are offering people here). I bet you could find similar info all around the internets if you cared to search for it right now (and like I said, recruiting departments should be searching for it). I'm not sure what kind of NDA the employee signed at Google, but I highly doubt that anything he shared would violate any such agreement. I totally see this as a non-issue. You could probably piece together equivalent info on Microsoft by reading my blog.

Next question: What is the role of this kind of information in the staffing industry?

I think I mostly answered that question already, but let me just say that a staffing professional that is working without information about what their competitors are offering is at a huge disadvantage. Think about a headhunting call and how ridiculous a recruiter could sound if they didn't know how their offering compared to their competitor's. In the words of Popeye: "how embarasking". Also, a huge waste of time.

I should also point out that when I say competitors, I'm not talking about competitors in the product marketplace, but competitors in the talent marketplace; those companies that a prospect might choose instead of Microsoft, for example. Those competitors may or may not sit within the same product/industry space. If there's anyone out there that wants to tell me about their experience at a talent competitor of Microsoft; how well their benefits match up, the relative culture, etc., and aren't bound by any NDAs, you just consider this an open invitation. Knowledge is power. If you've worked at Microsoft )(or do currently) and can compare experiences, all the better.

Are your marketing people doing this with your competitors' customers? They should be.

The more interesting question for staffing professionals is how you manage this type of data. We do have a data management strategy on my team and I may share more details about that in the future. I doubt that my target blog readers give a rip, but maybe someday.

Next question: Who has a better deal, Microsoft employees or Google employees? That is for you to decide. My opinion is obvious.

Like I said, different people value different things. Some of the people I worked with years ago like to recount the story of the foosball table that was set up by a dev team outside of my office door. Oh, it pains me to even think about it. I made recommendation to the team where they could put the table and they agreed that the sky-bridge was the best option. That kind of college environment does not work for me. It worked for the dev team. I'd rather have a bigger bonus than free food. I'd rather have dinner with friends or family than in the office. I'd rather hire people based on what they can do than their college GPA. I'd rather not know the answer to the question "boxers or briefs?" among my co-workers.  I'm sure a recruiter at Google could make a compelling argument for the flip side. I'm all for putting the information out there and letting people decide what works best for them. Microsoft works best for me at this point in my life. If that changes, I'll let you know.

So on this topic, and just the general tone of the conversation around this whole thing, I want to make something clear. The day I stop wanting to kick Google's butt is the day I stop working at Microsoft. In fact, if I lose my passion around offering a more compelling employment offering to our target prospects than what Google offers (or other companies for that matter), I'd like to invite my manager to unceremoniously can me. In the product market, the consumers decide what they want and sometimes we come out on top and sometimes the Googs do. I don't develop product so I don't have a direct impact on that. My space is offering a great employment experience. And as much as one person can't significantly impact the culture of an entire company, I care deeply and I believe that we offer something pretty amazing (otherwise, I'd be elsewhere) and my job is to identify the talent and communicate that effectively. I guess I'm kind of sick of the mamby-pamby approach because I do not think it represents who we are as a company or individuals. So I don't apologize for caring about the contents of that e-mail; I just wished it would have all gone down in a different way.

Comments (14)

  1. patblue says:

    THAT was a long post….

    I left and came back, I would never consider creating a paper trail that came (in one view point or another) dangerously close to breaking NDA even from an ethical standpoint.  I hated HATED HATED the company that I left Msft to work for, but I wouldn’t go in to that level of detail on a blog about it….Now if you talked to me about it 1:1 in Kirkland over dinner and drinks that would be a whole different ball game :-).

  2. HeatherLeigh says:

    Haha. we are glad that you are back, Pat! The thing with this whole episode is that the employee in this scenario isn’t the person that posted the info online. I’m still oddly fascinated by the people that think it’s OK to do that. I wonder where they work.

  3. Jim S says:

    I don’t see how this would stomp on an NDA. There were no real details disclosed (other than Google has shoeshine boys prowling the hallways).

  4. HeatherLeigh says:

    Not for the original employee, but the person that posted the info on the blog, yes.

  5. Jim S says:

    Oooooh, I see. What can they do short of firing the person?

  6. HeatherLeigh says:

    I have no idea if they will try to find the person. I’m only involved inthe staffing side of things. Maybe they could warn the person…heck, I don’t know. If their manager knew about it, I’d guess it could impact their review because it certainly is poor performance. I don’t know. I’m just speculating. I have no clue.

  7. Paul says:

    Ok for the blogger to post?  Of course it was.  Nothing confidential was shared.  Nothing that was shared is protectable legally.  I don’t get the significance of using email lists (seems like a pretty standard way to share info), but given that it’s all public domain info and not protectable, no harm, no foul.

    Ok for the recruiter to share?  Of course it was.  If it wasn’t OK to share, then it wasn’t OK to ask.  The only reason it wouldn’t be OK to ask would be if the questions were intended to extract confidential information, and in that case, the recruiter is guilty (whether intentionally or not) of coercion since the recruiter is in a role where they control the offer or no offer. Technically, that would be illegal.

    Ok for original employee to share? Yes, of course.  Nothing confidential was said (at least nothing that appeared in the blog post).  Whether I get 3 meals a day, or a foosball table is simply not protected information.

    What is role of this info in staffing?  As you’ve said, companies need to ensure that they are competitive in attracting the best talent.  As long as nothing illegal is done to get the information, and it isn’t confidential (which it isn’t), then this is perfectly legitimate.

    Who has better deal?  Who cares?  If I have an offer from both companies, then I have to evaluate what’s most important to me at that point in time, but that’s the only time when this question matters.  I can’t speak for anyone else about what’s important to them, and since MS is better in some areas, and Google in others, and the differences tend to reflect preferences of a different age profile, but not exclusively, it sounds like it’s 50-50 and completely dependent on the individual’s preferences.

    Maybe I’m missing something, but I honestly don’t get what the controversy is.  The posting described a generic version of every high tech company I’ve ever seen, some weighted more one way, others in the opposite way.  Every company has advantage and disadvantages.  Nothing confidential here.  No breaking of NDAs.  Whether by email, or in a phone conversation or person to person over dinner, you can’t stop people from sharing what isn’t confidential.

  8. HeatherLeigh says:

    You can stop people from sharing what they agreed not to share.

  9. Paul says:

    Only if it isn’t already public domain, which everything in that blog post is.  The only thing the blog writer did was make it more universally accessible.

    With social media reporters waiting to pounce on anything they find interesting, responsibility is completely on the shoulders of whoever wants the story quiet.  If you don’t want a story told, don’t tell anybody (either the original employee who conveyed information to hr, or the hr person).  If something is truly confidential or private, then you must ensure it is only told to trusted individuals capable of keeping a confidence, and certainly not broadcast on a listserver.

    Either no one did anything wrong, or everyone involved did.

    As an outsider looking in, I just don’t see anything here.

  10. HeatherLeigh says:

    Paul, you don’t know what he signed. It doesn’t have to be illegal to be against policy. Since you aren’t an employee here, I wouldn’t expect you to be knowledgable on our policies. The  idea that every internal communication that is sent to an alias is for public consumption is preposterous. What large companies have you worked at where that is deemed OK?

  11. Jim S says:

    Paul you must be a lot of fun at parties.

  12. Paul says:

    Thanks Jim.  I’m a riot.

    @Heather – sure, I understand that you might have policies, but unless you’re only talking to Softies, I can only evaluate based on what you’ve told us.  The courts have upheld that you can’t make someone sign away natural or legal rights under duress (e.g. signing an employment agreement), and to publish information that’s already public domain, even if it came from a restricted email alias seems to fit within that boundary.  

    Regardless of whether it’s a fine line (if the yes/no was debatable, then it mustn’t be obvious to everyone else either), I would certainly concede that if an individual made a personal commitment to not do something it would be wrong if they reneged, and that it’s poor business judgment no matter what.  But context does matter — I didn’t say that every internal communication is for public consumption, but the opposite.  Not all can be protected, and this kind would be hard to prohibit.  

    Also that it’s a new reality of social media that you have to assume that anything you say might be recorded, anything that’s stored or communicated electronically might be posted, anything you post might get linked to and disseminated around the world.  And, that puts increased onus on the communicator of information (even when the recipient is 100% in the wrong for breaking a confidence or spreading it around.)

  13. HeatherLeigh says:

    I don’t have any other points I want to make. Already said what I wanted to say.

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