A Microsoft employee quit. Then the company completely broke the rules

How a company reacts to an employee's departure can say a lot about the company.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer
Microsoft Corporation logo outside the Executive Briefing Center at company's Redmond campus

Now with added humanity?

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I sometimes wonder how often managers in tech look at their direct reports and bet on who will quit first.

And next.

To be a tech employee is to be coveted and cosseted. To quit, however, is to be shunned. You are, after all, causing a problem for your bosses -- and offering a reflection of their management skills. 

That, at least, was always my impression.

Yet I was recently assaulted by a curiously uplifting tale from, of all curious uplifting companies: Microsoft.

Ben Armstrong, group program manager of Microsoft's Azure Kubernetes Service, was so proud of his company that he had to deposit the story in everyone's most pride-filled arena: Twitter.

He told of an employee who quit to go to a rival. Tech companies would much rather you created a freakish startup -- in which they can invest -- rather than go to some dreaded enemy.

Armstrong says he told the employee that as they were going to a rival company, their departure would likely be fast-tracked.

On the employee's last day, however, there was a family emergency. The employee needed to get on a plane immediately and fly to another country.

Here was the problem: the employee was on an H1-B visa. So, if they flew without effective employment, America wouldn't let them back in.

The employee asked if there was anything Microsoft could do to help. I can think of one or two companies that would say: "Sorry, see ya, wouldn't wanna be ya."

Armstrong himself wasn't optimistic: "I told them we could try, but I was not hopeful."

Oh, Ben. You didn't think Microsoft is a compassionate company? Bill Gates doesn't work there anymore.

Armstrong seems to have been surprised at the company's alertness to another human's plight.

He said: "Two hours later we were in a call with an HR Director at MSFT; who immediately agreed that while this was against MSFT policy, that was not important here. What was important was that this person needed to be with their family."

And so Microsoft agreed, despite the paperwork of departure having already been signed, to keep their departing employee for another week.

I confess I found this oddly heartening. To put aside any potential resentment and to consider the simple human situation was surprisingly commendable.

Naturally, there were various Twittered positions.

Many praised Microsoft's readiness to break its own rules for the sake of a departing employee. Some suggested it was a fine way to make that employee feel they could return to Microsoft one day.

One offered that this behavior may not have always been associated with Microsoft in the past.

Scott Rich, the senior security engineer for Sentinel One Partnerships, mused: "When I announced my intent to leave MS, the CISO and Security Director stopped talking to me overnight. 2 weeks later, I ran into one of them where I was told in a spiteful voice 'good luck'. "

He added: "2 years later we had the most successful cybersecurity IPO in history."

I was especially moved, though, by a comment from a rival.

Massimo Re Ferrè, who styles himself as chief psychology officer, container team at AWS Cloud, offered this wise perspective: "My comment is not directed to MS but it's sad that we live in times where it would have been 'normal' to do nothing and 'amazing' to do what it is mere common sense and minimum level of humanity."

I fear some might want to remind him that AWS is part of Amazon.

More importantly, he's right. The very fact that this act was, in some way, extraordinary does offer a dim view of where the corporate world has sunk.

Too often, tech companies utter rote platitudes about their human focus, yet think nothing of instantly firing employees. Collectively, on a Zoom call.

Too often, they have policies that say: "Hey, you quit, so too bad."

Which, I suppose, Microsoft still does.

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