Yahoo Battles Brain Drain

Internet Company Braces for Wave of Exits After Holidays

To the catalog of problems facing Yahoo Inc., add employees like Greg Cohn.

Mr. Cohn joined Yahoo six years ago as a business strategist, working his way up to become a senior director in charge of generating revenue for new initiatives. He says he is a believer in the onetime Internet pioneer, and that he considers its current management the strongest of any since he arrived.

Some of Yahoo’s 14,000 employees are considering other opportunities as morale declines at the company, which is bracing for a jump in departures following the holidays, Amir Efrati reports on digits. Photo: AP.

Even so, Mr. Cohn left Yahoo in October to start a technology company of his own.

Tim Morse, Yahoo's acting CEO, shown in 2010, is meeting more frequently with top managers than his predecessor did.

If you’re not growing, if you’re not giving people challenging things to work on, if you’re not holding out the promise of creating some personal wealth during one of the frothiest technology markets in modern history, and if your people don’t ultimately believe in your ability to deliver across that whole spectrum, you’re toast,” Mr. Cohn said of Yahoo’s challenge in retaining workers.

Mr. Cohn’s assessment underscores the dilemma facing Yahoo loyalists, as the company’s future hangs in the balance.

Since Yahoo fired Chief Executive Carol Bartz in September, its board has been considering proposals from several private-equity firms to take a controlling stake in the company, even as it searches for a new CEO.

Within Yahoo, top executives including interim CEO Tim Morse, Chief Product Officer Blake Irving and Ross Levinsohn, Yahoo‘s chief for the Americas, are going about business as usual, working late hours to launch new services and courting Madison Avenue to sell more ads on Yahoo‘s websites.

But many others in Yahoo‘s ranks, which number close to 14,000, are considering other opportunities as morale declines at the company, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former company employees and talent recruiters.

Overall, attrition at Yahoo has remained little changed in recent months, according to a person familiar with the matter. But company executives are bracing for a jump in departures following the holidays and the bonus season, which typically occurs early in the year, said people familiar with the matter.

Yahoo’s shareholders may not be keen on a deal to grant Silver Lake Partners control of Yahoo’s board, and the right to bring in a new chief executive, Rolfe Winkler reports on digits. Photo: AP.

In addition to Mr. Cohn, other longtime executives and engineers have departed in recent weeks, including a vice president of Latin American operations and the company’s chief trust officer, who decamped to rival Google Inc. to work on privacy issues for the Google+ social network.

Some employees who left in recent months did so despite having to leave behind Yahoo stock they owned but couldn’t sell until a future date, said people familiar with the matter.

While Yahoo has struggled to retain employees in the past, this time around it also is contending with the lure of a hot Silicon Valley job market. “If you call nine people at Yahoo, you’ll get nine calls back,” said Ed Zschau, a Silicon Valley recruiter.

Recently, Yahoo‘s management has taken some steps aimed at improving morale, such as serving Tuesday-night dinner at its Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters. That move came after some employees complained earlier this year that they had little incentive to work late because the cafeteria was closed, said people familiar with the matter. Yahoo co-founder David Filo also has met with employees for mentoring sessions and to help with projects, a role he has played before, these people said.

Mr. Morse, the interim CEO, has told employees in meetings that outsiders, including potential bidders, place great value on Yahoo‘s operations, according to people familiar with the matter. He also is holding weekly meetings with top management, these people said, rather than the once-a-month sessions held by Ms. Bartz.

Shortly after Ms. Bartz’s ouster, Mr. Morse taped a video for employees. “Change and the external swirl that goes along with it are never easy,” he said, according to a person familiar with the matter. “It’s hard to read the news reports out there. It’s times like these that companies and the people that make them tick get tested.”

Yahoo board members also have been in touch with the work force. In late September, two directors sent an email to employees saying the company and its advisers were “fielding inquiries from multiple parties that have already expressed interest in a number of potential options.” They added that Yahoo needed to “accelerate innovation” and “reignite inspiration.”

The company is continuing to hire aggressively to fill its ranks of advertising salespeople, editors to oversee Yahoo‘s popular sites and computer engineers, among others. Some longtime workers say they still are happy at the company and note that Yahoo continues to have one of the Web’s largest audiences, with more than 700 million unique visitors to its sites every month.

Still, there are signs that may not be enough to satisfy everyone. Since David Mathison became a recruiter for executive-search firm Chadick Ellig Inc. in August, he said, two dozen Yahoo employees, including more than a half-dozen vice presidents, have connected with him on LinkedIn to signal their willingness to talk.

Meanwhile, former Yahoo employee Mr. Cohn said he thinks some good projects are coming out of Yahoo, but the uncertainty surrounding the company has become a “distraction to people who should be focused on shipping new products.” The board “will need to take a more aggressive approach to retention,” he added, because “real innovation is hard to commit to in a climate like that.”


About mtlin

I'm easygoing and sometimes sentimental, also can be very funny. Geek style but social. A Blogger, a Wikipedian and an Engineer.
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