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April 23, 2005

Microsoft and the Anti-Discrimination Bill

Scoble got permission to post Steve Ballmer's company-wide email about stories that Microsoft had caved to pressure to not support a state anti-discrimination bill.

More specifically, Ballmer states that Microsoft did not decide to stop supporting the bill after two employees testified in favor of it in February, and a local pastor threatened to launch a boycott. Instead, Ballmer says that the company decided in January, when planning its legislative agenda for this year, to be neutral on it, as opposed to supporting it like it did last year.

Scoble says he is disappointed because Microsoft is appearing to cave to anti-gay forces. I disagree with that accusation -- I do believe Ballmer when he says the decision was made in January. It's an unfortunate case where someone asks you to do something and you were already planning on doing it, it's hard to prove that the two were unrelated.

BUT, there is a suspicious part in Ballmer's memo:

"What message does the company taking a position send to its employees who have strongly-held beliefs on the opposite side of the issue?

The bottom line is that I am adamant that Microsoft will always be a place that values diversity, that has the strongest possible internal policies for non-discrimination and fairness, and provides the best policies and benefits to all of our employees.

I am also adamant that I want Microsoft to be a place where every employee feels respected, and where every employee feels like they belong. I don't want the company to be in the position of appearing to dismiss the deeply-held beliefs of any employee, by picking sides on social policy issues."

That, Steve, is a crock, and you must know it. Look, what this says to me is that the following sequence happened:

  1. Microsoft sponsored the bill last year.
  2. Some employees complained about Microsoft's sponsorship -- not in February of this year, but sometime last year.
  3. In respons to employee complaints, Microsoft decided not to sponsor it this year.
  4. The company came up with the rationalization above, about how sponsoring the bill could make anti-gay employees feel discriminated against.

Steve, first of all, can we cut this "murderers are victims too" line of thinking? Do you agonize about hurting the feelings of employees who enjoy looking at porn on their computers? What about those who like to post internal schedules on public forums? Do you stay up at night worrying about their feelings? I doubt it.

Second, what you said is wrong. If an employee has deeply-held beliefs that woman are inferior, or a certain ethnic group has negative character traits, the company certainly has no qualms (nor should it) about dismissing those beliefs, no matter how deeply held. I just did my 30-minute anti-harassment self-training that all employees are required to go through, and obviously if someone decides to run around the hallways shouting anti-gay slogans, they will be disciplined in a way that they would not if they ran around the hallways shouting anti-seafood or anti-deodorant slogans. The company supports free speech up to a point, but beyond that, when personal belief becomes harassment, the decision has already been made which one wins.

So I'll allow that Microsoft's decision to not support the anti-gay bill was made in January, but that decision looks very very very very very very very very very very suspicious. I don't think anything fishy happened this spring, but I do think something fishy happened last fall.

Posted by AdamBa at April 23, 2005 09:05 PM

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Hey Adam, thanks for calling bullshit on Ballmer's comments. Thats really bold man. I too felt exactly the same way when I read the mail. The message that microsoft SHOULD be sending to all employees is that its not right to discriminate against anyone based on their sexual orientation. Being neutral on the bill DOES NOT send that message. The fact that microsoft did support the bill for the previous year MAKES IT EVEN WORSE. I wonder if GLEAM has already responded to Ballmer's mail?
Anyway its was so disheartening to read about this first in the stranger. My initial reaction was 'No, I bet the stranger got some of their facts wrong, theres got to be some kind of misunderstanding here?'.
This is probably the first time in my career here at ms that I've felt ashamed about the company. Theres been times that I've thought about moving on, I don't think I've ever entertained that notion as seriously as I'm doing right now...

Posted by: thanks at April 24, 2005 10:37 AM

I've been thinking about this for a couple of days now, and my conclusion is also that a decision made before the meeting with the religious person.

That said, I think that's a convenient alibi. There's every possibility that discussions took place before the meeting and the meeting was a "It HAS BEEN taken care of" meeting as opposed to an "It WILL BE taken care of" meeting.

To me, that's all beside the point. What's disappointing to me is this:

I truly believe that Steve is personally anti-discrimination. The problem is that when faced with taking a stand one way or another, HE CHOSE THE SIDE WHICH BENEFITTED SHAREHOLDERS OVER WHAT EVEN HE BELIEVES IS MORALLY RIGHT.

That, friend, is the mark of person beholden to the bottom line uber alles. A man with no soul.

I'm not gay, but this bothers me a great deal.

Imagine working at a company in 1964 and getting a memo from your CEO that says "Well, I personally am not racist, but the company has chosen to take a neutral stance over the Civil Rights Act. After all, some shareholders have other opinions, and who are we to get involved in social issues?"

Posted by: the bachelor at April 24, 2005 11:23 AM

You know this bill was a simple bill to prevent DISCRIMINATION against gays in jobs and housing.

It wasn't a referendum on the "sinfulness" of homosexuality and the idea that Ballmer claims this to be "controversial" is insulting.

MS is not going to be able to blow this off with spin - it made a big mistake and it needs to admit it.

Posted by: Patrick ONeill at April 24, 2005 02:36 PM

You know what else is very suspicious about this dicsussion and the public pronouncements? It's after the fact.

The vote took place on April 22 and the bill was defeated by one vote. One has to wonder why Microsoft waited until after the vote to have this very public conversation when they made the decision in January. hmmmmmmm

Why did they hold off on a memo to employees until after the vote had ocurred? Why not explain to employees at the time when they decided on a change in policy? hmmmmmmmm

Now, THAT'S suspicious.

Posted by: mobile jones at April 24, 2005 03:21 PM

The issue you are all overlooking apparently and what Steve said well is that Microsoft is a public company - not a citizen. Microsoft should not be setting public policy for the entire state, it should be setting it for the company itself. That simple fact should be obvious. If everyone at Microsoft wants to join in and support the bill as citizens, then great. I am all for it..

Posted by: RobertPM at April 24, 2005 03:36 PM

RobertPM, Microsoft is not setting policy for the entire state. It's just offering its opinion for legislators to consider. As a company that pays taxes in Washington, it should certainly be allowed to do so. Microsoft does have a legislative agenda and supports certain bills, it just chose not to support this one.

If Steve had just said, we looked at our work this year and prioritized the pending bills in terms of importance to the company and this one didn't make the cutoff, then fine. It's a judgement call, I disagree (http://www.proudlyserving.com/archives/2005/04/the_value_of_di.html), but he's the CEO and I'm not. But his comment in his memo that I excerpted made it seem like they considered this bill specifically and chose not to support it because of concerns about the deeply-held beliefs of employees--not because of wanting to simplify the legislative agenda.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at April 24, 2005 04:36 PM

Second, what you said is wrong. If an employee has deeply-held beliefs that woman are inferior, or a certain ethnic group has negative character traits, the company certainly has no qualms (nor should it) about dismissing those beliefs, no matter how deeply held.

He meant positive beliefs, not negative or oppressive beliefs. You must have the common sense to differentiate, humans are not monkeys.

Posted by: Andre at April 24, 2005 05:18 PM

Andre, do you think that believing that gays should not have equal rights is a positive belief? What positive belief would be offended by Microsoft supporting this bill?

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at April 24, 2005 08:36 PM

Um...what the hell is Andre trying to say?

Posted by: sfoisfdoih at April 24, 2005 09:57 PM

Another interesting question...
if we, as a company have other legal/social priorities to pursue, why is Brad Smith meeting this religious fanatic twice on this issue?
mmmh, sorry Steve, we don't buy it.

Posted by: Employee at April 24, 2005 10:02 PM

I just posted this as a comment to one of Scoble's posts, but I think the point can be made here as well.

The shareholder argument doesn't wash.

It's in the shareholders' best interests for Microsoft to hire and retain the most talented employees possible, to in turn produce the best software possible, to then in turn bring in the highest returns possible. Not supporting the bill may well have hurt shareholders' interests, given that premise. In fact, there may be a viable shareholder lawsuit, if strategic employees demonstrably leave the company over this.

So arguing that Microsoft's position is somehow a *defense* of shareholder value is remarkably obtuse. Just like most American business practices. :)

Posted by: Hal O'Brien at April 25, 2005 12:40 AM

It may not be a defense of shareholders' economic interests, but a defense of their moral and ethical views.

That said, I think said views as well as the way MS chose to "defend" them are misguided.

Posted by: steven at April 25, 2005 06:11 AM

Comparing this to sexual harassment or racism is a strawman. Take a really contentious issue that splits the country and employees down the middle -- for example, would you have liked Microsoft to take a position on the Terry Schiavo situation? How about late-term abortion? For my money, issues like this are the provence of talk shows and controversy mongers.

And staying "neutral" on the bill is not the same as saying that Microsoft supports discrimination. It just means that Microsoft did not want to support the bill. There are any number of reasons that a bill might not be worth supporting, even if it ostensibly attempts to serve some value that you hold.

Posted by: Joshua Allen at April 25, 2005 03:00 PM

RobertPM writes: "Microsoft should not be setting public policy for the entire state, it should be setting it for the company itself."

Actually, there may be a business case for statewide policy. Or even nationwide.

Imagine a Microsoft salesman. Who's gay. Losing a customer due to anti-gay prejudice.

Now, I'm not actually sure if that would fall under this kind of anti-discrimination law, and a case would probably be hard to make, because the customer could come up with plenty of acceptable reasons for ending the business relationship.

However, it would probably behoove Microsoft to support legislation that moves the culture in a direction where this is less likely to happen.

Otherwise, if Microsoft is internally more tolerant than the wider society, Microsoft may end up discriminating against its employees, in order to avoid this kind of conflict with outsiders.

And they could lose business.

Posted by: Jon H at April 25, 2005 03:27 PM

Also, I wonder if Encarta will be edited to remove references to evolution, the big bang, the age of the universe, dinosaurs, etc.

Posted by: Jon H at April 25, 2005 03:28 PM

Thank you, Adam. I agree with everything you wrote, and again, thank you.

Posted by: John Aravosis at April 25, 2005 03:57 PM

Your comments cut right through Ballmer's self-justifying corporate double-talk. Great job. If "some employees complained about Microsoft's sponsorship" of the legislation, I really wonder just how many did? or maybe it's just Ballmer himself?

Posted by: Brian Hamilton at April 25, 2005 04:21 PM

Joshua, Microsoft has already taken a stand on this issue, because its policies prohibit harassment based on sexual orientation. So to me it is precisely like gender or race issues (that's the point of the bill, to make it legally the same).

There are many reasons to not sponsor such a bill, but Ballmer's comments imply to me that the actual reason they didn't was to avoid distressing employees who are anti-gay. That is what I don't like. If an anti-gay employee can really and truly prevent their feelings from affecting their work in any way, then Microsoft shouldn't have any say in the matter. But part of being able to "prevent their feelings from affecting their work" means being able to grit their teeth and go to work for a company that supports such a bill.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at April 25, 2005 05:03 PM

For those who think that MS is doing "enough" for gays and should not support the bill...

So it is okay for gay MS employess to be evicted from their apartments because they are gay? It is okay gay MS employees to be denied the right to purchase a house because they are gay? It is okay for the partners of gay MS employees to be fired because they are gay? 1515 WAS NOT A CIVIL UNIONS NOR A 'GAY MARRIAGE' BILL. It was to prohibit the issues that I have discussed. As a long time user of MS products and an IT manager, I cannot sufficiently express my hurt and anger at MS.

Posted by: George at April 25, 2005 06:03 PM

Steve, first of all, can we cut this "murderers are victims too" line of thinking?

Ouch. That one stings, but it is entirely true and entirely justified.

Thanks for blogging this issue Adam.

Posted by: worldcitizen at April 25, 2005 06:59 PM

>>So it is okay for gay MS employess to be evicted from their apartments because they are gay?<<

Why don't you do something useful and list the names of the apartment that evicted those people?

You are blaming the wrong company for discriminating against gay people.

Posted by: at April 26, 2005 05:05 AM

"Why don't you do something useful and list the names of the apartment that evicted those people?
You are blaming the wrong company for discriminating against gay people".

Okay, I will do something. I wiil work to create a law that makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Creating a list does does nothing BECAUSE IT IS PERFECTLY LEGAL TO EVICT SOMEONE FOR BEING GAY, FIRE SOMEONE FOR BEING GAY, ETC. A list would just serve as a list of accomplishements for people who have a hatred for gays.

You can be 'neutral' on many issues but not on issues of discrimination.

If you are NOT against discrimination, you are by default supporting discrimination.

Posted by: George at April 26, 2005 05:22 AM

In addition to my comment immediately above, I would strongly argue that a Washington state resident cannot be evicted simply for "being gay." I am not a lawyer, but I think the discriminated person should start with the Washington state Landlord-Tenant Act. Excerpt:


RCW 59.18.020
Rights and remedies -- Obligation of good faith imposed.
Every duty under this chapter and every act which must be performed as a condition precedent to the exercise of a right or remedy under this chapter imposes an obligation of good faith in its performance or enforcement.

As far as I know, it is not illegal in Washington state for a resident to be a "gay person." It seems to me if a person suffers damage, in the form of the loss of their home, the Landlord is not operating in "good faith."
That is where I would start in fighting an eviction without good cause.

Posted by: at April 26, 2005 05:25 AM

oops, George got in a comment between my posts, and my comment about the post immediately above may be confusing.

I want to reiterate that I believe it is already illegal for someone in Washington to be evicted or fired simply for being gay.

Posted by: at April 26, 2005 05:28 AM

It is nice that you appear to believe that it is illegal for someone in WA to be evicted or fired for being gay. However, your beliefs do not give much comfort in this era of 'backlash' or whatever against gays. People of 'Faith' are now being manipulated by their religious leaders. They are being led to believe that they are 'victims' and that it is okay for them to discriminate because it is God's will. If we assume that you are correct, what is better for a fired gay man - to have a single, clear law on the books that prohibits discrimination, or to look for existing laws that may be used for protection, and probably will face a full decade of legal challanges by hate groups? What is so bad about the anti-discrimination law? What makes this issue "controversial"? FYI, it is not helpful to discover that MS has Ralph Reed on the payroll to the tune of $20k a month. He has spent a good part of his career advocating FOR discrimination against gays.

Posted by: George at April 26, 2005 06:05 AM

You're making the anti-discrimination law sound like it is some kind of magic wand.

If a tenant wants to kick you out because they think you are gay, they are going to find a reason.

You can only be evicted for good cause. And "being gay" is not listed as a good cause.

Are you concerned about people being harmed by discrimination? Or are you trying to force your will on those "people of faith" you singled out?

Posted by: at April 26, 2005 06:11 AM

You mean in the same manner that "people of faith" who most obviously choose their spiritual beliefs and lifestyle, force their will and believe in legal protections in employment and housing for themselves?

Posted by: Kevin at April 26, 2005 07:29 AM

Kevin - can you name examples or are you just being prejudicial?

Posted by: at April 26, 2005 07:38 AM

Gosh. . .you mean you'd like me to go through an history of religious persecution of others in America? Where would you like to start. . .with the Native Americans, whose children were removed from homes and forced to attend christian boarding schools, or we could move to the persecution of Mormons, to the use of evangelist Billy Sunday's interpretation of biblical scripture to demand separation of the races and rage against interracial marriage?

I find it most ludicrous that "people of faith" often know very little about the history of their own denomination, their positions on social issues in the past, and yet select only certain verses as an excuse to persecute others.

The point is obvious - people are protected in this nation, and in the states, from discrimination based on their religious beliefs. Since no one is born a member of any particular denomination, selection of beliefs and participation in churches are a matter of choice, rather than an innate characteristic. If those same people are opposed to gay people being protected in the same manner, what kind of prejudice is that establishing, and whose religious beliefs are used as official arbiters of morality and law?

Posted by: Kevin at April 26, 2005 12:15 PM