Corporate Responsibility

Everyone seems to be talking about Microsoft's recent stance on the anti-discrimination bill. What seemed to start as a local story (or so I thought) grew to national proportions very quickly. I don't know if it's because the issue is so sensitive or if Microsoft looks like it is getting bullied and flip-flopped (haven’t heard that term in a while). There have been a lot of opinions, including that of Robert Scoble, who was disappointed with Steve Ballmer's company-wide memo in response to the controversy. Scoble used Nazi Germany as an example of how ignoring human rights walks a fine line. While I see Robert's point, I have to respectfully disagree. I was appreciative of the memo and agreed with the stance. In fact, I had never e-mailed Steve Ballmer before, but I did do so after he sent his memo. Here's what I wrote:

I don’t make a habit of mailing my CEO, but this is a great mail. Microsoft was put in an impossible position and your swift, rational response is something I respect and admire. Microsoft’s ability to impact and affect politics is a powerful responsibility and it often puts us in the middle of some ugly situations. Last year, my wife served as deputy campaign director on I-884. My opinion of both Microsoft and Brad Smith (who participated in a press conference to show Microsoft’s explicit support for the initiative) was greatly enhanced by Microsoft’s willingness to take such a strong stance on something as unpopular as a sales tax increase. In fact, as I recall, you also made public statements in support of the initiative. It was wonderful to see Microsoft taking such civic responsibility.

But sometimes, discretion is the better part of valor and your statement below recognizes that the anti-discrimination bill is an especially sensitive issue that isn’t directly related to our business. As CEO, you have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders and you can’t let your personal opinions jeopardize the business (though I certainly share your personal opinions). I agree on the decision to limit our activism to things that relate to our business. With regards to social issues, I think our role is to be model citizens in the business community. Respecting the diversity of employees, engaging in progressive policies, and rejecting the ludicrous suggestion that we fire the two employees that testified in favor of the bill--that is exactly the type of behavior I expect from Microsoft and I feel more than comfortable defending the company’s approach.

Keep up the great work. You’re a big reason I love this company.

Am I kissing up to my CEO? I am letting him off the hook? I don’t think so. Knowing where to draw the line is a difficult decision. If corporate responsibility requires we stand up for anything and everything, where does it stop? Does anyone know what GE's take is on this bill? How about Hot-Dog-On-A-Stick’s? Why must Microsoft take a stance? Because we had two employees who, representing themselves, testified on behalf of the bill? That’s a lot to ask—defending 55,000 employees every time they do something on their own. And, for that matter, if we have to take a stand on anti-discrimination, should we also take a stance on the Iraqi occupation? Should we have weighed in on Terri Schiavo? How about the new pope? Hey, what does Microsoft think of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner's engagement? Both Steve and Bill have publicly come out personally on their support of the bill. To use their personal opinions to speak for 55,000 employees on a topic that is arguably not related to the primary business of software (as opposed to traceable issues like education) could be construed as arbitrary. That applies not only to customers but also employees that were not in favor of the measure. Given the bill was shot down, I think it's safe to say the bill had its opponents. Like I said in my mail to Steve, sometimes "discretion is the better part of valor".

{Dave Matthew Band – Before These Crowded Streets}