Microsoft Thinks Hard

Washington state, the bill’s supporters were outraged. Failing by one vote in the Senate, the bill’s demise has been blamed on Microsoft’s official neutrality.

Gay rights supporters were livid. Columnist Wayne Besen reacted by suggesting gay activists “…dust off your boxing gloves and prepare to fight for your rights or, you can stay silent and redecorate your closet….” Equal Rights of Washington state is asking for Microsoft to return a diversity award presented to the company in 1991. Despite the passage of civil unions in Connecticut, activists believe the Microsoft reversal signals a turnaround in progress for gay political progress. Concerning gay rights, Besen moaned: “This is the first time I believe we are going backwards and actually losing the battle.”

However, I see the events surrounding Microsoft as possibly signaling another trend that would ultimately benefit everybody. Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft issued a memo to his employees that may foretell a shift among publicly held companies toward corporate neutrality on issues of conscience that are unrelated to the business bottom line.

An excerpt from Mr. Ballmer’s memo follows. As quoted in the Seattle Times, he wrote:

“We are thinking hard about what is the right balance to strike — when should a public company take a position on a broader social issue, and when should it not? What message does the company taking a position send to its employees who have strongly-held beliefs on the opposite side of the issue?”

What message indeed? When large public corporations support causes that are unrelated to the bottom line, employees who disagree with the stance can feel helpless. These employees may feel disenfranchised and conflicted that their labors are supporting an issue they would never support in their private lives. Ballmer is aware of this tension and suggests that a real respect for diversity requires a company to take no position when an issue sharply divides co-workers. He goes on to make exactly this point:

“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.”

Mr. Ballmer wants every employee, conservative, liberal and in-between to feel respected. After years of disregarding the views of employees with traditional social views, Microsoft via the Ballmer memo, seems to understand that tolerance often requires respecting all views by favoring none.

Unfortunately, due to the vitriolic response from the left, Ballmer’s common sense approach may yet be reversed. Reportedly surprised by the backlash, Bill Gates, board chairman indicated to the press that Microsoft may yet support the bill next year. However, for those grieving over the loss of support for the anti-discrimination bill, it may be helpful to consider how they would feel if Microsoft had gone from being against the bill to being neutral.

Media reports suggest that a local pastor may have threatened a boycott of Microsoft products. Whether the boycott story is true or not, something caused Microsoft leadership to reflect about matters of fairness and mutual respect. I doubt it was a threatened boycott, but perhaps the visit by the local pastor was a purpose-driven moment that caused the leaders at the software giant to think hard about how it might feel to be on the other side of the ideological fence.