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10 October 2008

My Yahoo Years: Part 1 Managers and Mismanagement in Pasadena and Burbank

Ever work at a place where a supervisor called you at home and told you you were driving your mini van to the next county? He hadn’t cleared you for time off with pay. He hadn’t even cleared pay for your gas. He just needed you to empty your car that night. Even the next morning, the managers weren’t sure about either the time or the gas.

When I complained, my manager defended that supervisor’s professionalism.

That’s what it was like, working for Yahoo! Search Marketing. As it turned out, I was told after the fact that I’d be using a vacation day—as if there weren’t better ways to use a vacation than driving a load of donated goods to firefighters to make Jerry Yang look good.

I only found out later when I complained that although we worked next to Burbank airport, the supervisor thought it was too much trouble to rent a van. Why have someone else clean the car, pay to lease a car, pay for insurance and drive when you can have an employee do it on their off hours and vacation time?

The week after that incident, as a reward, for that sleepless night spent cleaning and washing my car, I was told I could never volunteer for any charity-related activity again. Up until then I had been the co-chair of the Yahoo volunteer committee. My co-chair was the supervisor who made the decision to take my mini van on a trip that I hadn’t expected to go on. I was also one of the thousands laid off a few months later in mid-February.

What do you expect? This is the same place where a manager prevented me from changing my Tuesday-Saturday schedule to my preferred Sunday-Thursday for two years. Employees couldn’t turn in a form for a schedule change request; they asked their managers. My manager just decided that my interest in taking business classes on Saturdays wasn’t important enough and never turned in my name—for two years or eight quarterly review sessions. Was that manager punished? Of course not.

When I finally was granted permission to have a schedule change, her manager demanded that I never, ever ask for Sunday off.

The reason for this? I had taken too many Saturdays off the previous year. I pointed out it wasn’t written down anywhere (like our contracts) that we had a limited number of weekend days we could take off. He replied that managers would take aside an employee when they had reached their limit. My manager never did and managers have to sign off on each vacation day request. So you might ask, if I got permission, why was I being restricted for doing what my manager had given me permission to do?

The person I was trading schedules with wasn’t under the same restriction. No one in my department was. This wasn’t a secret. Other managers knew and instead of stepping in and objecting, in my opinion, they took advantage of the situation.

When my aunt died and I asked to take a Tuesday off, I was told I was too late by my immediate manager even though it was a Saturday. I persisted. She relented. When the software designed to measure our productivity had obvious problems—showing one thing to the manager and another to the employee, I was held to the score I could not see and put on probation. A request to have the equation used for each value so I could make an Excel spreadsheet was ignored.

Even when I could show that the score might change—going up or down for the same day in less than 24 hours, it didn’t matter. I found that other people had noticed the problem and just worked around it. I had been there before, working during lunch and overtime without pay in order to make my quotas. The first time, I had thought I was at fault. The second time, I wasn’t sure any more. The third time, I knew that the problem was in the methodology used to determine the metrics. I wasn’t willing to work any more overtime without pay.

When I challenged that manager in question about the no-Sundays off policy, he sent me an email. I responded with legal questions and cc’d his supervisors and HR in Sunnyvale. I got a month of silence and then the no-Sundays policy was rescinded without an apology or admission of wrongdoing. Instead, I was given a bonus and told that I talked too much on the phone among other things—things that were subjective.

I went home and cried, basically having a nervous breakdown. What I should have done was complain to Fair Employment. What I did instead is try to go through the bureaucracy of Yahoo’s HR department and workers comp.

Yahoo! Search Marketing was founded in Pasadena. One of several ideas that came out of Idealab, it was the first company to over pay-for-placement services on Internet search terms. Y!SM wasn’t always under the purple flag. Beginning as GoTo in 1998, it was renamed Overture in 2001. In 2003, it became part of Yahoo! and eventually its name was changed eventually to Yahoo! Search Marketing in 2005. I was there through the launch of a project called Panama and laid off in 2008 while on workers comp sick leave, having asked for arbitration as was required by my contract. My lay off was the first response given by Yahoo to that request.

According to Wikipedia, Panama, a new online advertising platform created by Yahoo! was an effort to close the wide gap with Google in the race for search advertising dollars, a fast-growing and incredibly lucrative business that Google dominates. The platform provides advertisers with a dashboard on which they can manage their marketing campaigns and includes tools that can suggest how advertisers budget their money. It uses a quality index by which advertisers can see how the system will rank an ad and understand how effective their campaign is. This replaced the simplistic Overture algorithm that ranked text ads according to how much advertisers bid for keyword searches by users and this attempts to give higher ranking based on click through rates as well as bids like Google. I paraphrase Wikipedia to ensure that I am not giving away company secrets.

If you’ve listened to the financial news, you know that Panama has not been successful and Yahoo is under threat by Microsoft and has turned to Google for help.

Clearly Yahoo! is having some problems, but the problems are not just in its failed business models, but also in its failure to understand the laws that govern industrial relations in the state of California as well as some basic, old business rules.

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