Kara Swisher

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As Yahoo CEO Reaches Out to Top Staff, Board Meets to Weigh “Options” (I.E., Deciding Who Gets to Take the Borked Bio Blame)

Even as Yahoo’s board was kibitzing all weekend about how to handle the continuing resume-padding controversy around its recently hired CEO Scott Thompson — including hiring its own outside crisis communications firm to represent it — he was working the phones to keep top staff apprised of the evolving situation.

While Thompson told those he spoke to that he was limited in what he could say and blamed a “personal vendetta” by an activist shareholder for his troubles, being proactive in this regard is probably a good idea.

That’s because multiple sources said he said exactly nothing in various strategy meetings with top employees last week about allegations leveled by Dan Loeb of Third Point, which proved correct, that Thompson had not gotten a computer science degree in college, as his longtime bio had claimed.

“It was the gorilla in the room and it was awkward in the extreme,” said one exec present at the meetings. “He never brought it up, which was even worse.”

At this point, it seems unlikely that Thompson can regain the confidence of many at Yahoo — even though a company spokeswoman said he received a lot of incoming support too, both externally and internally — until he can render some cogent explanation about how the borked bio got into both Yahoo’s public site and also its more critical regulatory filings.

Even more mysteriously, how the error was never present in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission made by eBay, where Thompson led its PayPal payments unit, although his public eBay bio has also been wrong for close to a decade.

And, most of all, how was it that Thompson never caught the mistake himself — even when directly asked about it — despite the likelihood of reviewing it multiple times over those many years and ultimately certifying it for Yahoo’s own SEC filings.

Calling Encyclopedia Brown to solve the Case of the Computer Science Degree That Wasn’t!

Thompson has given no explanation about the debacle to the bulk of the Yahoo staff at all levels, save for an information-free and terse note to employees on Friday afternoon that essentially asked them to focus on their work instead of his bizarre crisis.

Unfortunately for him, many Yahoos are focusing a lot on Thompson, with message boards at the Silicon Valley Internet chastising their CEO and giving him support that is tepid at best. From interviews I have had with two dozen employees this weekend, to say morale is at an all-time low is perhaps understating the situation.

Here is a short selection of comments that were read to me, for example:

“Resume padding is one thing, but lying about something that is so easy to check is puzzling.”

“There is no reason to let it slide by … This isn’t some guy who’s trying to impress a date … It’s sad that we just accept this kind of stuff from corporate heads and politicians.”

“Having some document to prove you can do a job is not all that important, lying about it is.”

What appears to trouble employees the most in the threads I was read was the nonchalance of the initial Yahoo statement about the issue, which called the addition of a fake degree on Thompson’s bio an “inadvertent error.”

“From a pure employee perspective, it feels like it is a violation of their principles,” said one person, reflecting a dozen or more conversations I had this weekend up and down the organization. “And anyone else would probably be immediately fired for this, even with an explanation.”

Said another: “He clearly knew and lied for years; and his handling since exposed has been unacceptable.”

As I noted above, a company spokeswoman said there was also much support for Thompson (pictured here) within the company, but declined to provide any quotes or details.

Presumably, some answers will be coming from a board investigation aimed at getting to the bottom of the situation, including trying to grok who put the error in the bio in the first place.

My bet: They’ll try to pin it on a lower-level minion, although that will not fly with a lot of people.

Including me, because whoever typed in the faux degree, its presence there has been too long for Thompson not to be responsible for it.

Flunky error or not, there are important questions about whether Thompson himself provided a bio that contained the inaccuracy to the board when he put himself forth for the job via direct emails to Yahoo director and Intuit CEO Brad Smith.

That line of thought basically boils down to: Can Thompson not read?

More problematic is the fact that the placement did not come via Yahoo’s headhunter on the CEO search, Heidrick & Struggles, which apparently was not charged with doing a background check on Thompson.

Instead, the director in charge of the search, Patti Hart, sources said, hired another forensic firm, which appears to have missed Thompson’s erroneous academic record.

The only thing completely clear amidst all the confusion: Hart screwed up by botching an extremely simple part of a vetting she was charged with. That makes her vulnerable, of course, along with other Yahoo board members or staffers closely involved in the talent search.

While Hart (pictured here) is in a much dicier position, Thompson still appears to have initial board backing — at least for today — as it’d be a very tough call to fire yet another CEO so quickly in the middle of several key deals for Yahoo, as well as a proxy fight.

Said one person close to the situation, the board is still considering its “options,” in an effort that is being led by independent board member Fred Amoroso.

So, it will be instructive to see how the board will proceed tomorrow — especially since it is likely that Loeb will lob a lawsuit to try to get more information on the Thompson hiring process.

But it’s started by hiring its own outside communications firm, Sard Verbinnen, which has handled other crises for Yahoo in the past.

Sard’s Charles Sipkins — welcome back, Charlie! — had no comment about the board’s next move, except to reiterate its statement from last week that it is looking into the Thompson bio mess and will make appropriate disclosures at some point.

We can’t hardly wait.

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— David Pogue on why he’s joining Yahoo