erik lundegaard

Shitty But Not Illegal: Two Tales of Microsoft

This is a story about a missing $500.

It’s also a story filled with bureaucratic inefficiencies and general corporate horribleness. Meaning it’s a story for our time.

In the mid-2000s I wrote regularly for MSNBC-Movies—nearly 100 articles between 2004 and 2008—but that work was drying up by the summer of 2008 when the editor of MSN-Movies, Dave M., with whom I’d made tangential contact, invited me to the Microsoft campus for a big meeting with writers from around the country. MSN was revamping its movies site and he wanted me to be part of it.

A few days later, I pitched an idea to him called “The Smart Knight”: How the movie “The Dark Knight,” which I’d seen at an advanced screening, was avoiding the traditional traps of the Batman character (lawman; bat signal) and thus staving off the character’s inevitable decline into camp. Dave liked the pitch and gave the go-ahead; I wrote the piece and sent it to him the day before the film opened. It was posted to MSN.com the following Monday.

Now they had to pay me, $500, and since I was not yet in their system Dave began the work to make it so. He contacted Julie D., a human resources contractor, to help with a Statement of Work, or SOW, which all vendors need to sign. Julie then asked for my vendor number from MSNBC. I gave it to her. It didn’t work.

“It seems that you are set up as a vendor for MSNBC only under company code 8000,” she wrote. “I have contacted legal to see if I can just have that transferred to Microsoft’s company code of 1010.  If we can do that, then it should be an easy process—possibly a signature needed from you.  If not, then I have to go through the whole vendor set up process which can take awhile.”

It took a while. Two months later, in mid-September, I contacted Julie to see where we were in this process.

“Julie is gone,” Dave wrote back. “Adding Shirley.”

“Have you invoiced?” he asked Shirley H., the new HR contractor.

“Invoiced who and how and where?” Shirley answered.

It turned out, of course, that I would have to be set up as a vendor, but Dave promised it would be painless. Then he passed me on to a group called ProHelp, which, true to groups with the word “help” in their name, wasn’t much help.

Dave to ProHelp: I entered Erik into the Vendor tool three days ago. What is the hold up?

ProHelp to Dave: Please provide the NVJ number assigned when you entered them into the vendor tool.  We will then research further to determine the status of the request.

Days became weeks. I contacted Dave again about the delay.

“What’s your phone number?” he wrote back. “Need it and the SOW will be done and ready to process.”

Finally I was welcomed into the MSN family with this email:

  • New Vendor Request Number  NVJ1010109302 has been approved and has been sent to the  candidate vendor.
  • Sponsor/Requester,  please follow up with the vendor for completing the application.
  • Welcome: Erik Lundegaard

Attempting to input the NVJ number into the online form, however, led to this message: “The request number is invalid.”

“You need to fill out the application,” Dave told me. Meaning the two contracts they’d sent along: the SOW, which was shortish, and the general contract, which was more than 10 pages.

It was now October 3. I had already put more time into getting paid for the “Dark Knight” piece than I had in writing the “Dark Knight” piece. But at least we were nearly done.

Until I read the general contract. It included the following section. Feel free to skip. The basic gist is that in the future I couldn’t write anything about Microsoft that wasn’t already public knowledge:

Confidential Information.  Confidential Information includes without limitation the following in any form: (a) the terms and conditions of the Agreement and each SOW, (b) Microsoft products, services, and their marketing or promotion, (c) Microsoft business policies and practices, (d) Microsoft customer and supplier lists, (e) information received from third parties that Microsoft is obligated to treat as confidential, (f) personal identification information, (g) transactional or sales information, and (h) intellectual property created by or on behalf of Contractor in connection with performing Work. Confidential Information does not include information or items, however designated, that: (i) are or become publicly available without Contractor's breach of an obligation owed to Microsoft; or (ii) are known or become known to Contractor from a source other than Microsoft, other than by a breach of a confidentiality obligation owed to Microsoft.

“I can’t sign this,” I wrote to Dave. “I'm writing a piece for The Believer magazine about testing Xbox at Microsoft, and signing the contract, as written, would prevent me from doing so. Any way to make the contract specific to MSN rather than Microsoft?”

Dave turned the question over to Shirley, who turned it back to me: “Erik … do you have a vendor number with your work for Xbox?  If not, how are you doing work for them?”

I told her I’d done the work as a contractor from 1999 to 2003.

She seemed to understand: “Ahhh ok.”

Then she didn’t. “So Can you follow the steps on the previous e-mail I sent you?  You said you had filled it out once but doesn’t appear it was received by the vendor set up folks. Do you know if someone else is trying to set you up as a vendor?”

She thought it was another procedural problem. But we were past procedural and into contractual.

After that, silence. Microsoft does not write specific contracts for someone like me. Microsoft does not negotiate with someone like me.

In November Dave M. moved on, replaced by Dave S., and by January we were no further in the process. I assumed I would never write for MSN again. But could I at least get paid for the “Dark Knight” piece?

I contacted Dave S. It took a while to get him up-to-speed, at which point he wrote: “I’m not sure if it’s better to just start over or not.”

He added this mea culpa: “Sorry for the delay in getting you paid,” he wrote. “This is truly unacceptable.”

And that was the last I heard from anyone at Microsoft.

*  *  *

Since then, as things have only gotten worse for freelance writers and the economy, and as I’ve seen acquaintances from that MSN meeting in the summer of 2008 gain national attention, I’ve often wondered if I made the right decision in not signing that general contract. The choice was certainly stark: write for Microsoft but never about Microsoft; or occasionally write about Microsoft but never for Microsoft. I chose the latter, which was more freeing but less lucrative. And lucre comes in handy.

I’m writing all this now because my domestic partner, Patricia, after more than 10 years at Microsoft, was fired last month. She worked hard for that company. She left early in the morning and came home late at night. She lost weekends. In July, I visited family in Minnesota but she couldn’t come; she had too much work. In August, we went camping on San Juan Island and every day I had to drive her into Friday Harbor so she could plug in and move projects forward. The Sunday before she was fired, while I went hiking in the Cascades, she worked all day on yet another project.

The reason she was fired? “Not meeting minimum performance standards.”

We saw a lawyer, of course, but he told us there wasn’t a case. The whole thing boiled down to a she said/she said, a two-year conflict with her boss. For two years, this boss had been awful to her but there was nothing discriminatory about her awfulness. She’d been awful to other employees, too, over the years, employees who were fired or who quit, but none of it was specific to gender, or race, or age. She was just awful generally.

“It’s shitty,” the lawyer told us, “but it’s not illegal.”

The firing occurred during Patricia’s annual meeting, after which Patricia was escorted to the HR office and from the building. She was not allowed to go back to her office to collect her belongings. There was no severance package and she was warned against showing prospective employers the work she’d done at Microsoft for 10 years. The work was theirs, not hers, and couldn’t be shown as something she’d created even though she created it. She was warned not to contact anyone at Microsoft but the HR rep.

Colleagues and co-workers flooded her with emails. “I’m flabbergasted...” one said. “You are very, very special, with enormous talent and such a completely cool-to-be-around personality that it will be MSL’s loss and somebody else’s gain,” another said.

The day after seeing the lawyer, Patricia’s belongings arrived from the Microsoft campus in four boxes, and, with a heavy heart, she sat on the living room floor and went through them. One of the first things she removed was her 10-year anniversary gift from Microsoft. She’d received it la few months before but had yet to open it. She did so now, and held up a heavy, green, crystal obelisk. A thick card, green and white, with an embossed “10” on the front, went with it, and inside were these words:

On your tenth anniversary, we would like to thank you for your incredible commitment to Microsoft. As a company, we are only as great as the individuals who work here. Fortunately, we have some of the very best employees anywhere. People like you. Thanks for all of your efforts over the past ten years.

To your continued success,
Steve Ballmer

I’m glad I didn’t sign that general contract with Microsoft back in 2008. I didn’t get my $500. But now I can write whatever the fuck I want to about them.

10th anniversary card from Steve Ballmer and Microsoft


Posted at 06:51 AM on Wed. Oct 12, 2011 in category Microsoft, Personal Pieces  
Tags:

COMMENTS

Becky B wrote:

Arg. I just... I've just got nothin' else.

Comment posted on Wed. Oct 12, 2011 at 07:18 AM

Julie wrote:

Thank you Erik for this article. It answers some questions I have about why no one at Microsoft is responding to my emails after I was “walked out” two weeks before Patricia. Evidentially, my achieving and exceeding committments, and helping others be successful were also below “minimum performance standards.” Unlike Patricia, I only spent four frustrating years at Microsoft.

Comment posted on Wed. Oct 12, 2011 at 08:50 AM

dimarco wrote:

I'm outraged reading this. thank for this article, erik. unbelievable.

Comment posted on Wed. Oct 12, 2011 at 09:47 AM

Wendy Burden wrote:

Is there any way to circulate this?
Maybe Patricia could go as her scary boss for Halloween.
Shit.

Comment posted on Wed. Oct 12, 2011 at 10:33 AM

Quit Before I was Fired wrote:

I am one of the “other employees” and have made it my personal goal to track said boss's career and let it be known in any way that I can that she is a horrible, horrible human being (and, I suspect, a meth addict). The really fucked up part is that one can tell one's story of horribleness at Microsoft and people will just look at you like you must be a problem employee. “Why did you leave Microsoft?” I am asked once in awhile for consulting positions. My answer? “There's no way to sugar-coat it. My boss was a See-You-Next-Tuesday, and I was a victim of her systematic bullying and crappy self-esteem that prevented her from letting anyone else succeed--as were 4 other people at last count. I needed to quit, else I'd be imprisoned for poisoning her daily dose of Flamin' Hot Cheetoes.” Someday, somehow, that woman will regret the day she treated other human beings like dog shit.

Comment posted on Wed. Oct 12, 2011 at 10:48 AM

Quit Before I was Fired Too wrote:

Oh Patricia, I feel for you. Once a month I berate myself for leaving Microsoft back in the cold dark days of 2007 due to this self-same awful manager. But, then I manage to pay my monthly bills, and then I can put this person behind me for another month. Did I do things wrong at the end of my MSFT employment? Sure I did. I didn't go to group off-sites. I used the internet for personal browsing (not the running of a business out of my office, as I was accused of), I searched job postings at other companies...but I can honestly say, all due to the fact that I had a manager who had absolutely no interest in me as an employee. I spent 18 months beating my head against the brick wall that was Julia. The final straw; I spent a whole day in my office, the door closed, crying due to her awfulness. The next day, I gave 2 day's notice. The ONLY thing I can look back on with gladness, is that I left on my terms, not hers. What a bee-yatch. I hate her. Even today, 4 years later...I f&%ing hate her.

Comment posted on Wed. Oct 12, 2011 at 11:27 AM

lynn wrote:

Outraged, but not surprised. Patricia did fantastic work and was ridiculously dedicated.

Comment posted on Wed. Oct 12, 2011 at 12:16 PM

Quit Before I was Fired Too wrote:

PS--I made a point of telling the HR lady that conducted my exit interview about Julia. I emphasized my point that there was “something seriously wrong in this manager's group” in particular. Even followed it up with several stories of my own torment that I wont relate here. Knowing now that my situation may not be entirely unique, I am shocked to find out that She[TM] is still there.

I wonder if HR ever looked in to my expressed concerns...probably not. What a shame. A talented lady like Patricia might still have her job. But, like my wife is fond of saying, everything happens for a reason. I am certain you are headed for greener pastures, Patricia! Best always, Jim.

Comment posted on Wed. Oct 12, 2011 at 05:22 PM

Chadly wrote:

=(

I still work there, but I've always had good bosses. (I strive to treat my employees as I'd like to be treated too!)

Find greener pastures, Patricia. Best wishes!

Comment posted on Wed. Oct 12, 2011 at 07:47 PM

Don't let The Man get you down wrote:

I work at Microsoft. It's getting harder and harder to stay. The new performance evaluation system ranks employees 1 through 5 on a curve. Managers must rank 7% as 5 and 13% as 4--essentially 20% of the company is given a “poor” grade. Those who aren't forced out the door are left severely demoralized. Even the 3s, whose bucket is 40%, are demoralized because they've just been labeled as average.

Needless to say, I'm looking hard for another job.

Comment posted on Wed. Oct 12, 2011 at 08:10 PM

Mistamatic wrote:

MSFT's review system is deeply flawed in that it's a one-way look at those lower on the ladder...NEVER does an employee get to review their boss. Any company I'd run would have that stream going both ways...I would want to know how my managers' people thought of them.

When the lawyers took over 12 years ago or so, it was all over for the quick and streamlined vendor process, too...MSFT makes decisions based on their advice and nothing happens until then. Have fun with that increasing stagnation and petrification.

Comment posted on Thu. Oct 13, 2011 at 02:50 PM

Andy E wrote:

Great article, Erik. I'm really sorry for Patricia, that stinks. But I will say that that the day I was laid off from a company that was incompetently managed turned out to be a turning point in my career, and a turn toward something better. (A freelancer who could write anything he damn well pleased, but didn't make much money!).
Andy

Comment posted on Thu. Oct 20, 2011 at 08:30 PM

Kyla Cromer wrote:

I'm late to the party, Erik and Patricia, I hope things are getting a little better for you. I just want to say that unfortunately I don't think Microsoft is unique in this. It reminds me of a (much more minor) story of a friend of mine who dropped her company Blackberry in the trash at a restaurant accidentally and couldn't get it replaced even though she was going to pay for it. They were no longer letting people at her level onto the company network. Or something. After a couple of months she had to just buy a regular one. Take care - Kyla

Comment posted on Sat. Dec 10, 2011 at 11:39 AM

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