Microsoft Confessions: 'Poor worker bees'

Today's Microsoft Confession comes from a woman let go during the first round of layoffs, in January 2009. I'll call her Amanda, which, of course, isn't her real name. Amanda shared key elements of her story on deep background, but she also provided a reflective portion that she hopes will give deeper insight to anyone looking to work for Microsoft or to HR departments looking to hire former employees.

By telling this story, Amanda wants to give some meaning to her layoff, or so I detected from what she shared for private and public consumption. Amanda's story is consistent with every other I received. She sharply criticizes Microsoft's culture of reorganization, but also emphasizes the heavy workload. I detect deep frustration in her story about Microsoft management problems that won't easily be fixed.

Amanda's story follows two other confessionals -- "Killed over politics" and "Deeply dysfunctional family." As explained on Friday, after the last round of Microsoft layoffs, I asked former employees to tell their stories, which are presented anonymously to diminish risk of repercussions -- either to work elsewhere in the tech industry or to any Microsoft severance arrangement.

I challenge current or former Microsoft employees to either confirm or contradict two key points from Amanda's story: That some Microsoft divisions demand overlong work weeks and that employees who can't keep pace are penalized. From my experience, long hours are standard among many software companies. Does Microsoft demand too much? Current or former employees, please answer the question in comments.  With that introduction, Amanda's story:

A lesson and caution to the masses is found in how quickly I went from rising star with a bright future to yesterday's dishwater that couldn't be tossed out quickly enough, without changing how I approached my work! In summary, it was all due to the arrival on the scene -- all praise the holy reorg, which is an approximately annual religious festival in certain sects, I mean divisions, of Microsoft -- of a particular manager...The organizational culture in many parts of MS is such that one manager, even one with a history of their own performance problems, can spell doom for even the most diligent, accomplished, well-intentioned and politically-savvy employee.

The opportunities? [They] can be among the most amazing for your career that you'll ever encounter. This is balanced, however, by the reality that merit isn't always the primary criteria by which opportunities are given out, and that opportunities that are given in the blink of an eye can be -- and sometimes are -- taken away in the blink of an eye for no apparent reason at all.

The culture of the work environment? Let's talk about that, because while people need to know that the culture of working like a dog for 5 years to retire a millionaire is long gone, they also need to know that the culture of working like a dog for 5 years for your regular wages isn't, in some departments.

My former team required 60-90+ hours a week of its employees for several years straight. The average across many weeks was 80-90 [hours], for months on end. If you were unwilling to do the hours any more, you became persona non grata. This meant the least desirable assignments, poor reviews and so on. While the conventional answer to a bad team situation in a big company is to transfer teams, it didn't work for people on that team.

Multiple people on the team wanted to transfer off the team and away from its overtime commitment but management exercised their prerogative to retain them on the team out of urgent business need so that they could not leave. This justification was used to delay their departures 3-6 months, with the effect of causing them to miss the opportunity they'd wanted to pursue [elsewhere in Microsoft] and requring them to continue to do the excessive hours.

Meanwhile, the rest of us poor worker bees had to listen to them complain about the situation until they were allowed to leave. It's not good for morale to be reminded every day that when you get tired of the excessive commitment required by the team, you're likely to be just as trapped, and just as unhappy about it, as your peers are.

In some cases, overassignment of work was used to cause competent employees to appear to be failing at completing their required responsibiltiies. In other cases, people who had not been with the company long enough to be eligible to transfer to another team had to just quit to get out of the unpaid overtime without a permanent black mark in the form of a bad review on their Microsoft record.

Pregnant women ended up on early bedrest from the stress. People slept at the office in order to use the commute time for more work. For some, there were weekly all-nighters in the schedule. A capable contributor on my former team, whose name I know, experienced the indignity of a second-level manager suggesting that they go out on disability if they couldn't handle the stress of the workload, as the manager insisted they should be able to get that workload done in a 40-hour week. Given my background as the longest-term member of the team, including management, I'd call the assertion that that was a 40-hour load shamefully ludicrous to the point of professional negligence.

Anyone in the industry knows about crunch times right before ship. But this was three years of crunch times. After a year had elapsed, the "we don't have the luxury of time to train additional staff to help us get this done" justification for it started to smell kind of bad.

Few teams are like this, but it only takes ending up on one to end your career as a blue badge. It's good for people who are considering Microsoft employment to know. It's also good for people who are considering ex-Microsoft employees for roles in other organizations to know, because among those cut loose are some smart, dedicated, hard workers who were simply asked to do too much, for too long to be able to succeed at it forever in the eyes of the organization -- and who'd be an asset to just about any company in the industry. I know that if I ever, in the future, receive a résumé from someone who left Microsoft during one of the layoff timeframes in 2009, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.

Other stories in this series of confessionals:

I'm still collecting stories. Please e-mail joewilcox at live dot com. Stories can be anonymous, but I will need to verify identities.

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