Brad Smith is president and chief legal officer of Microsoft.
This month Microsoft became the first Fortune 100 company to endorse legislation inspired by the #MeToo movement. Our endorsement was part of a journey that continues not only for ourselves, but also for many across the country. As we head into 2018, there are opportunities for all of us to ask important questions, learn together and act collectively.
The bill, introduced by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), would ensure that every person facing sexual harassment can make their case in a public court, rather than solely in private arbitration. At Microsoft, our more active involvement began the last day of November during a morning meeting of the company's senior leaders. After we discussed our internal efforts to ensure that employees are aware of the ways they can raise sexual-harassment concerns, a few women asked why we were not also more vocal in addressing the issue publicly. They pointed out that during 2017 we found our voice on the travel ban, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, LGBTQ rights and Charlottesville. They urged us to address sexual harassment, as well.
My initial reaction was that the issue was less about wanting to speak and more about knowing what to say. The past year has been unlike any other for many in business. Social issues have made their way not just into the headlines but also into our workplace conversations. Our employees increasingly look to us, as their employer, to stand up publicly for their needs.
When the year began, we wondered how we would manage these issues. We ultimately found our path, deciding to speak on important matters that affect our employees inside and outside the workplace, but always striving to do so in a principled way. We would avoid personal attacks and make clear what we support and not just what we oppose. And we would seek to offer thoughtful, practical and constructive ideas.
The last part was the most challenging as we considered publicly addressing sexual harassment. What practical steps could we help advance? It seemed sensible to answer that question before speaking externally.
That need was on my mind when I found myself in Graham's office six days later. Although I was there to continue a conversation about cybersecurity and immigration, our staff had suggested that I also ask about the bill he had just introduced.
Graham got my attention when he said 60 million Americans cannot bring sexual-harassment claims in court because they have employment contracts requiring that all such claims be submitted exclusively to private arbitration. And I was intrigued when he made an impassioned case for Microsoft to become the first company to endorse legislation to end this practice.
I said that we would learn more, which is what we did. It has been a thought-provoking journey.
Some across the country read the first news stories about sexual harassment and thought these were tragic but isolated incidents. But with each week, more accounts made the pervasive nature of the problem undeniable.
To a degree different from many other issues, sexual harassment has persisted because the victims too often have been silenced. The change that is needed requires more than courageous victims. People need confidence that their voices will be heard by an objective listener who can take effective action. This is precisely the problem the new legislation addresses.
This led us to reflect on another dimension. I asked internally whether Microsoft required any employees to sign arbitration clauses that would stop a sexual-harassment victim from filing a lawsuit. We had never enforced such a clause, but we found that a very small percentage of our U.S. employees had such a provision.
We discussed how to address this. One option would be simply to wait to see if the law changed. But if we believed the new legislation was worthy, why not act first and change our own provisions requiring arbitration of sexual-harassment claims? This seemed a more principled path. It became the path we took.
It has been interesting to see the interest in Microsoft's changes. This is something we've seen on other issues. Like our employees, the broader public increasingly is looking at companies as one agent of social progress.
This led us to a final reflection. As the country addresses sexual harassment, we each need to summon the will to do more. Action is needed by Congress, businesses, and organizations large and small. At Microsoft, we look forward to identifying and taking additional steps.
Ultimately, I'm struck by the voices that nudged us on our journey in November. They were the voices of Microsoft women in leadership positions. There's a lesson here. It's hard to imagine pervasive sexual harassment at institutions where women are well represented at all levels. That needs to be part — perhaps even the most vital part — of our collective destination.