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Thursday, June 24, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft Exec Dismissive Of Firm's Temps -- They're `Not As Good' As Regular Staff, CFO Greg Maffei Tells Group

Seattle Times Technology Reporter

Microsoft's chief financial officer Monday disparaged the software giant's temporary workers even as the company fights ongoing litigation that accuses it of treating those workers unfairly.

In a speech to a group of accountants, Greg Maffei said Microsoft was not particularly rigorous in screening its temporary hires.

"We are very tough in hiring in terms of standards, but we weren't as tough on temps," Maffei said in response to a question at the end of an hourlong presentation. "So you found that the quality of the temps is not as good as the quality of the full-time people."

On Tuesday, Maffei said his comments were unclear and "may be misunderstood."

"Microsoft sets certain standards for hiring regular employees," Maffei said. "We don't set the standards for those companies that employ contingent staff. Regardless, we value the contributions of Microsoft employees and contingent staff."

Microsoft has had a long-running battle with a group of temps pushing a class-action lawsuit that accuses the company of treating them like full-time workers in every regard but compensation. The company contracts with outside firms to supply about 6,000 temporary workers who work alongside its 30,000 employees worldwide.

Maffei, speaking at the annual meeting of the Institute of Management Accountants at Seattle's Westin Hotel, said the disparity in quality has made it difficult for Microsoft to convert much of its temporary work force to full-time positions.

"We're really having a hard time doing that conversion," Maffei said. "Even though we relied on the temps for certain jobs, we wouldn't necessarily have said we want them for full time."

Maffei also said the company is planning to limit the time temporary employees can work at Microsoft to one year.

"We've set a hard rule - 364 days and these people are out," Maffei said. "I don't care if they are rebuilding Windows 2000 by themselves, they are not going to work in this company."

But Microsoft spokesman Dan Leach said the company may still use temporary workers after they've been there for a year. The company established a policy a year ago that temps who finish an assignment or consecutive assignments that last more than 12 months must wait at least 31 days before returning to Microsoft.

"There is no change to that policy," Leach said.

No reporters attended the speech, but the Institute of Management Accountants posted a video of it on the group's Web site. The vast majority of Maffei's speech focused on how Microsoft's finance department uses software and the Internet to improve performance.

When the moderator asked about temporary workers, he even suggested that Maffei "may want to avoid it a little bit" because it is a sensitive topic.

Maffei, a confident executive not prone to shying away from questions, responded anyway.

For seven years, Microsoft and lawyers representing temporary workers have sparred over the treatment of those workers. The suit filed by the temps seeks millions of dollars in gains from employee stock-purchase plans.

Last month, a panel of three judges in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco unanimously overturned a year-old decision that would have limited the class to a few hundred workers who held temporary jobs at Microsoft from 1987 to 1990. Instead, the appeals panel ruled that all past and current temps - potentially thousands of workers - could be included in the class. Microsoft asked the appeals court to reconsider the ruling, but the court today rejected that request.

While Maffei didn't specifically mention the decision, he more generally criticized judges.

"There are nutty judges in the country to start with," Maffei said. "Let's start with that premise."

Maffei backed away from that comment as well on Tuesday, saying he has "tremendous respect for the courts."

Maffei's comments are an insult to the temporary workers at Microsoft, said Marcus Courtney, a former Microsoft temp and co-founder of the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech), a group trying to organize Microsoft's temp workers into a union.

"When it comes from that high of a level, it's a definite blow," Courtney said.

Earlier this month, 16 of 18 workers developing a financial-accounting program formed a bargaining unit and asked WashTech to represent them in discussions with four staffing agencies that supply temporary workers to Microsoft. Courtney said Maffei's comments illustrate the disrespect the company has for temps.

"It's insight into Microsoft's management that they think these people are second-rate, second-class citizens," Courtney said.

Jay Greene's phone message number is 206-464-3287. His e-mail address is: jgreene@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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