Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, has responded to the recent controversy regarding Microsoft’s apparent withdrawal of support for a piece of legislation which would have prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the State legislature. His response is here, courtesy of Scoble.
Here are some excerpts from this very long email:
Over the past two days, there’ve been a lot of stories about Microsoft and our position on an anti-discrimination bill in Olympia.
I’ve heard from a number of employees, and I take all of the input on all sides seriously, so I wanted to talk directly with all of you about the company’s position and how I view these issues.
First, I want reaffirm my personal commitment — and the company’s commitment — to keeping Microsoft a company that values diversity. That will never change.
As long as I am CEO, Microsoft is going to be a company that is hard-core about diversity, a company that is absolutely rigorous about having a non-discriminatory environment, and a company that treats every employee fairly.
I’m proud of our track record on diversity issues. We were one of the first companies to provide domestic partner benefits, or to include sexual orientation in our anti-discrimination policies. And just this year, we became one of the few companies to include gender identity or expression in our protection policies.
When our government affairs team put together its list of its legislative priorities in Olympia before the Legislative Session began in January, we decided to focus on a limited number of issues that are more directly related to our business such as computer privacy, education, and competitiveness. The anti-discrimination bill was not on this list and as a result Microsoft was not actively supporting the bill in the Legislature this year, although last year we did provide a letter of support for similar legislation.
This is a very difficult issue for many people, with strong emotions on all sides. And that makes it a very difficult issue for me, as the CEO of this company.
On this particular matter, both Bill and I actually both 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.
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?
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 know that some employees will still feel frustrated by the position the company has taken, but I wanted you to hear directly from me on this. We will continue to wrestle with how and when the company should engage on these kinds of political issues. And above all, I want you to know that as long as I am CEO, Microsoft will always be committed to diversity and non-discrimination in all of our internal policies.
These comments have given rise to yet another massive debate about the role of a company in Microsoft’s position. The big question is whether a multinational as big and as powerful as Microsoft should take a public stance on social issues and actively promote that stance? This is a tough one. There are people who would argue that a company that is big enough to have an impact on social issues has a responsibility to do just that. Others may argue that a company’s responsibility is to develop its business and to focus on the return to its shareholders and employees (which, of course, takes us right back to the first issue – potentially). Ballmer seems to have taken a stance more akin to the latter.
I think there is a good case to be made for companies like Microsoft working to change society for the better by promoting initiatives like legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Legislation like that is a necessity as far as I am concerned. That is, however, part of the problem. What about people who feel strongly about the opposite view? What happens if a powerful multinational takes a stance against women in the workplace (to take a more remote example)? What then? Would advocates of Microsoft’s involvement in the promotion of anti-discrimination also promote my hypothetical multinational’s cause against women in the workplace?
Or perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Perhaps the answer is for multinationals to support legislation and other initiatives that promote certain universal values such as non-discrimination. That begs the question who decides which values deserve support and which do not. How do you respect the views of those who don’t support those values?
On the other hand there is a simple solution. Multinationals have a responsibility to promote the values they support and ‘feel’ strongly about. In this case, as Ballmer puts it –
… Microsoft will always be committed to diversity and non-discrimination in all of our internal policies.
So, that being the case, support the legislation that prohibits discrimination, Steve.
Scoble was pretty upset with Ballmer’s response. It comes down to a leadership failure for him:
Steve, I’m sad. Very sad. This is leadership? What if we were a company
in Germany in the 1930s? Would we have taken the same position you just
did? After all, most of the churches back then were on the wrong side
too. It took the Catholic church about 60 years, for instance, to issue
an apology for their part in the Holocaust.
Scoble’s boss, Vic Gundotra, responded to Scoble in a strange kind of conversation by blog and came out in support of Ballmer and Bill Gates:
Should a CEO pick sides on an issue that is so divisive? Does being "inclusive" and "diverse" suddenly stop when it involves views that are different than the ones we hold?
Stop for a moment and put yourself in Bill and Steve’s shoes. These men have a track record of strongly supporting gay rights. I want you to think really hard about how early Bill and Steve were in this. They did this well before many other companies followed. They didn’t speak dogma, they didn’t preach. They acted and the company hence has a long record of doing the right thing.
Yet legislative agenda’s can go well beyond the scope of a company’s internal policies. By supporting legislation you are actively working to change the broader population.
I argue this is just exactly the same wrong you accuse the religious leader of. You claim the preacher went beyond his walls. Well since when did a CEO have the right to go well beyond his walls?
At least a preacher has an evangelism mission –he is charged with the spreading of his message. Do CEO’s have a responsibility to spread their beliefs on social issues? I would argue that the preacher has the greater responsibility on social evangelism – and a corporate leader has no role in this.
Steve did the right thing. He reminded everyone that he and Bill have been supportive of gay rights for decades. Yet he didn’t walk off the cliff and become a corporate preacher. He thoughtfully drew the line at a very logical place.
Fair enough. Then again, perhaps, as Scoble pointed out, "a CEO SHOULD take a position on controversial and divisive issues. That’s leadership."
Whichever stance you take, this is not an issue which will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction any time soon. It is a fascinating debate, on all levels, though.