Tuesday, December 18, 2007


More on a vanished Wikimedia employee

Reading the usual flashpoints where the Carolyn Doran surprise has been discussed -- the WikiEN-L and foundation mailing lists, the Village Pump, Jimbo Wales' talk page, and the Administrator's Noticeboard -- it would appear that the discussion is over, that everything has been said, and everyone (well, everyone whose opinion counts) agrees that the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) has handled this incident quite well. Despite all of those words, there has been a lot of talking around the point that most concerns me, a rank-and-file volunteer who honestly doesn't want to bother with keeping informed about Foundation matters. That point, put as simply as I can,
is as follows:

Reading a bit between the lines of the material that WikiNews has collected, it is clear the first that anyone at the WMF knew about this part of her history was no earlier than the moment she returned to US soil, and was detained by Federal authorities. Further, can anyone doubt that she was let go for cause: omitting to tell your employer that you have one or more felonies in your record is grounds for being either fired -- or told to quit.

The point I want to draw attention to is that while the Foundation was well within its rights to terminate her employment, they handled it in the most clumsy manner possible. There is, we all will admit, the problem that had someone done some kind of a background check, she would not have been hired; you don't want someone with a criminal record of passing bad checks handling money in your business. Now Florence Douvard has pointed out, quite plausibly I'll concede, that it was reasonable to assume that the temp agency which placed her at WMF should have done a background check; lots of temp agencies do this for the simple reason that their credibility is on the line each time they place an employee. Still, to take a bookkeeper who had no management experience and make her a "Chief Operating Officer" is putting far too much faith in an unknown quality. (Why didn't they simply call her job "Office manager"? Except for Jimbo "God-king" Wales, no one involved with Wikimedia has such a grandiloquent title.)

Instead, the WMF handled her departure in such a clumsy manner that until the details came out, no one who hadn't been present at her last interview could be sure whether she was the victim here (for example, she had been subjected to some nasty sexual harassment) or she was a brazen criminal (for example, the Foundation caught her with a large bag of Foundation cash in the parking lot). Now at the time her employment was ended had the Board simply issued a statement that she had left "for personal reasons", when the average Wikipedian learned of The Register's expose I believe she/he would have simply shrugged and said, "So that's why she left" -- and the matter would have been a non-starter. It would have indicated that the Foundation believed they had handled the situation as well as they could have from the beginning, instead of attempting to convince a shocked community five months later that they had.

Note: the phrase "for personal reasons" explanation was just the first that came to my mind. One could indulge in a game of informed speculation, and arrive at reasons -- other than concealing her background -- for why she left. Some of these would include her performance (i.e., it became obvious that she just couldn't handle the job), personal reasons (e.g., she told them she had a sick relative to look after), or that the board had decided to redefine the duties of "Chief Operating Officer" and she was not qualified. However because the Foundation was evasive about why she left, human nature is to assume the worst. Now the unavoidable explanation is that they found out about her criminal past and let her go, and out of embarassment tried to cover this up.

Further, the board is still evasive on this matter: access to their resolution concerning her departure still remains confidential, unlike the one a few months before for Brad Patrick. Since the one for Patrick is so bland -- just an announcement that he is leaving and a polite thank-you for his service -- and they had no reason not to pass a resolution equally as bland, here again it is hard not to see that this cover-up continues. What could this resolution contain that no one outside the Foundation is allowed to see? And if this is personal information, who insisted that it should be included -- and why?

Getting rid of an employee like Doran is a tricky position for any employer. One has to get rid of an embarassment as quietly as possible, with as little trouble as possible -- otherwise, the problem only gets worse. Sometimes the problem employee is given a "carrot or stick" choice: take a nominal separation package and quit, or be fired and face some nasty penalties. In the Foundation's situation, there were few resources to use as a stick, and none for a carrot -- yet, she walked away from the situation far better off than any other party did. The Foundation lost credibility in how it avoided -- or forgot -- to tell anyone she had left, the Foundation raised unneeded suspicion by evading questions when people belatedly noticed she was gone and asked for details -- any details -- and I feel now it is losing more credibility by not stepping up and clearly saying something along the lines of, "We admit that made made these mistakes, we've since made these changes so that this won't happen again, and we've done all of this because we know we are responsible to the Wikimedia community: the volunteers, the donors, and the users."

As I said above, no one is talking about this repeated failure to show that the Foundation can effectively solve a problem -- which would show that the board and staff of the WMF can be entrusted with handling money given for charitable purposes. All I have seen are arguments over whether Wikipedians should even give The Register the time of day, and how the Foundation should cover its ass the next time this happens -- which either trail off into the usual exchange of venomous language between its participants, or with a chorus of Wikipedians repeating that they still have faith in the project.

As much as I believe in the vision of the WMF, this does not mean that I automaticaly believe in any one individual involved in its projects. They have to work at either gaining or keeping my trust. If someone screws up, and doesn't make a sincere effort to fix the mistake, I will begin to lose faith in that person; this is human nature. This also means, if I find that I can no longer assume good faith in large numbers of the people on this project -- by this I mean the people I need to assume good faith in so I can spend my time writing articles -- either I will find another project or simply leave Wikipedia. And I doubt I would be the only one who will contemplate a decision like this.


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