Microsoft's personnel puzzle

As rivalry for talent heats up, company tries to address its reputation for arrogance in recruiting.

Arthur Sorkin has been courted by Microsoft on several occasions, but the computer scientist keeps saying no to the software giant's overtures, at times finding the company's attitude arrogant.

Sorkin, who holds a doctorate in computer science from the University of California, Los Angeles, said he first received an unsolicited invitation to Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., headquarters in about 2000, on the recommendation of a senior Microsoft manager.

But rather than attempt to win him over as a prize prospect--Sorkin specializes in operating system design and computer security, among other areas--Microsoft interviewers challenged him with a technical "pop quiz," he recalled. No one tried to sell him on either the company or the job, he said. He withdrew his application.


What's new:
Microsoft has attracted a reputation for arrogance in its personnel practices, which has put off some would-be job candidates.

Bottom line:
Now that the software maker finds itself competing for talent with a host of new start-ups and established rivals, it is working on its recruiting.

More stories on recruiting

Then, during the past year, Microsoft called Sorkin to say it had scheduled a phone interview with him for another job. He hadn't applied for it, and no one had asked if he was interested.

"It displayed a certain degree of arrogance and presumption," Sorkin said. The approach also backfired: The consultant, who splits his time between Los Gatos, Calif., and Mesa, Ariz., didn't join the software maker.

Microsoft won't comment on Sorkin's claims. But he is one of many observers within and outside of Redmond who's raising questions about the way the company recruits and retains its work force. The issue has come to the fore in part because of comments made by internal Microsoft recruiter Gretchen Ledgard, who blasted some of her company's managers as "entitled, spoiled whiners" who assume that everyone wants to work for Microsoft.

Ledgard's comments also lifted the curtain on a broader debate about personnel practices at Microsoft, which now finds itself competing for talent with a host of new start-ups, and established rivals such as Google, IBM and Sony.

Microsoft employee location

Among the charges leveled at Gates, Ballmer and crew: Job candidates have been turned off by Microsoft arrogance, and the company's extensive interview process works against hiring fresh thinkers.

The company is working to change its long-standing reputation for haughtiness in hiring, said Abilio Gonzalez, general manager in charge of recruiting. He said Microsoft is trying to convince job seekers that the world's biggest software company is a great place to work, "instead of assuming that everyone would want to work at Microsoft." Microsoft boasts that about 90 percent of those offered jobs these days accept them--a higher rate than in past years.

Redmond in a bigger boat
Of course, Microsoft, which is seeking to defend its turf in operating systems while expanding into newer areas such as desktop search, isn't alone in facing a tougher climate when it comes to competing for employees.

Big tech companies in general are up against challenges that include diminished interest in the computing field on the part of American students, who have seen the tech industry falter and offshore outsourcing emerge. Chairman Bill Gates himself recently took to the road to persuade students to consider computing careers.

Another shared difficulty for established tech players is a revival of the start-up scene. In the wake of the dot-com collapse, big companies had an easier time attracting and retaining talent, suggested Jonathan Visbal, the managing director of the Silicon Valley office of executive search firm Spencer Stuart. After so many start-ups turned belly-up, "many people chose to stay with stability," Visbal said.

Venture capital investment is rising again, meaning there are more opportunities for those with a taste for greater risks and smaller

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