Microsoft Draws Fire for Shift on Gay Rights Bill

Microsoft's progressive personnel polices made its endorsement of a Washington state gay rights bill seem like an easy call, at first.
Microsoft's progressive personnel polices made its endorsement of a Washington state gay rights bill seem like an easy call, at first. (By Robert Sorbo -- Associated Press)
By David A. Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Microsoft Corp. has long taken pride in its progressive employment practices. It was one of the first major companies to provide domestic partner benefits, and it has long included sexual orientation in its own anti-discrimination policies. The company, headquartered in Washington state, also is one of a handful to protect workers based on whether they follow gender conventions or not, through their dress, mannerisms or other expression.

But Microsoft's decision to withdraw its support for state legislation that would have banned discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing, employment and insurance drew sharp criticism yesterday from those who say the company missed an opportunity to make an important public statement. Instead, they say, Microsoft caved in to pressure from religious conservatives who opposed the bill, which failed by one vote last week.

"For a company that presents itself as cutting-edge and forward-thinking, such a move seems backward," Robert L. Jamieson Jr., a columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wrote yesterday. "And for a company recognized as a corporate leader for its treatment of gay employees, such inaction seems hypocritical, too."

Microsoft chief executive Steven A. Ballmer told employees in an e-mail that the company withdrew it support for the bill because it wanted to avoid taking sides on an issue that had divided its employees.

Many employees favored the legislation. But Microsoft officials, he said, had met with a local minister strongly opposed to the bill who is the pastor of a Seattle congregation that includes many Microsoft employees.

"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?" Ballmer said in the e-mail. "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."

Darrel Cummings, chief of staff of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, an advocacy group, characterized Microsoft's handling of the matter as a "colossal mistake," given that the company had submitted a letter in support of similar legislation a year earlier. He called on the company to return a prize it received from the group several years ago.

"In 2001, we presented an award to Microsoft called the Corporate Vision Award for the leadership they had shown within their company, and external to the company, on behalf of our community," Cummings said. "When we learned that Microsoft had withdrawn support for a basic fundamental civil rights bill for the gay and lesbian community in Washington, we felt we had no other choice but to ask them to return the award."

In his e-mail, Ballmer said he had been doing a lot of "soul-searching" on the subject after hearing from a number of Microsoft employees upset with the company's shift. He also asserted that the company's internal emphasis on diversity continues to be strong, even as its external position -- officially remaining neutral on the bill -- had changed. Microsoft, he said, remains strongly committed to internal anti-discrimination policies protecting "gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees."

Ballmer said the intervention of the Rev. Ken Hutcherson, an opponent of the legislation, had prompted the company to clarify its neutral stance on the bill after testimony by two company employees, who offered their personal views in favor of the legislation, had clouded the issue.

Hutcherson had threatened to push for a national boycott of Microsoft products if the company did not relent. But Ballmer said the company had not shifted its position because of pressure from the religious right. He noted that the company declined to grant two of Hutcherson's requests: that the two employees who testified in favor of the bill be fired and that the company issue a strong statement that the bill was unnecessary.

Ballmer said he and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates "personally support this legislation that would outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But that is my personal view, and I also know that many employees and shareholders would not agree with me."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company