03/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


Our thanks go to Microsoft (MSFT), that gray and lumbering incarnation of serious business, for providing us with one of the most outrageous, timely and ultimately edifying stories from this young recession of ours.

As you know, Microsoft, like every company in the world, is looking at how to manage its way through these essentially unmanageable seas. You can only save on electricity for so long. After a while, cutting out free beverages in the company lunchroom only accomplishes so much. Eventually, it comes down to firing people, whatever name you give to it. Reorganizing. Downsizing. Rightsizing. Outsourcing. Decruiting. A thorn by any other name.

Anyway, as they transitioned a bunch of people out the door, it seems that the software giant from Redmond miscalculated the severance owed to certain of its former corporate citizens. It was sort of like the Three Bears. Some received the proper amount. Others got a check that was too small. And finally there were those who got too much.

There is no record as yet that I've found of how Microsoft communicated with those who were shafted. I think they're perhaps still working on that thorny issue. But those who were on the receiving end of the excessive generosity received a letter specifying the amount owed by the laid-off employee to his or her former employer, and requesting that a check be mailed off immediately, made out to Microsoft.

When news reached the blogs of this stunning development, they reacted with predictable outrage. If you were unemployed and planning on how to live off your severance for a while, a letter like this would put you into something of a quandary. A number of possible responses would suggest themselves. First would be laughter, immediately followed by the urge to toss the letter into the circular file. I think that's probably what I would do, actually; throw the letter away and wait to see how many times The Company sent me follow-up communications before they got nasty.

It's not only insurance companies who can stall, delay, "lose" things and become "confused" about financial obligations. Ordinary people can do it too, although seldom as flamboyantly.

I suppose, in the end, I would pay the company back. I would take out my checkbook and look at my balance, which is now being depleted daily with no incoming salary to augment it, and write a check to the multi-billion dollar entity that cast my entire family into the pit of uncertainty. It would be the right thing to do, of course, and I guess most of us would do it, cursing.

But wait. There's more. Yesterday, on the heels of public interest in the story, the Viziers of Vista took a deep breath, bethought itself, and reversed its policy. In fact, CNET reports that the 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 the haute 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 uh-oh. Not too fast. 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 1,000 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.