Microsoft: On message, persuading no one

In explaining away a flip-flop on gay rights, CEO Steve Ballmer repeats the company line. Activist groups aren't amused.

Published April 25, 2005 12:50PM (EDT)

Ever find yourself struggling to communicate in a foreign land, and all you can do is keep saying the same words over again and over again in English, each time a little more slowly and a lot more loudly than the time before? "Do you sell apples? I said, 'Do . . . you . . . sell . . . ap-ples?' DO . . . YOU . . . SELL . . . AP-PLES?"

It's a frustrating and fruitless process for all involved, and it's one that might feel a little familiar for the folks at a certain software company in Redmond, Wash., today. Ever since an alternative weekly in Seattle caught Microsoft last week switching positions on a Washington state bill that would have outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, officials from the company have been trying to justify their actions with variations on the same theme: "We made a decision before this legislative session, as we do each year, that we would focus our energy on a limited number of issues that are directly related to our business."

The explanation didn't take when Microsoft spokeswoman Tami Begasse tried it in interviews with the New York Times or with War Room last week, so Microsoft decided to try having CEO Steve Ballmer say the words himself. In an email to Microsoft employees, Ballmer offered his insight into why the company stopped supporting an anti-discrimination measure it had previously backed: "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."

Sound familiar?

As we noted Friday, the explanation doesn't make a lot of sense. If Microsoft wanted to conserve its legislative resources this year, it could have done nothing at all; the company was already on record as supporting the bill, and it could have left it at that. Instead, it made an affirmative decision to switch from support to neutrality on the bill. Microsoft says it made the decision before it received threats from the minister of a local mega-church. But it didn't announce the decision until after those threats were received, and people who heard the announcement -- the members of a gay and lesbian employees group, a Washington state legislator who sponsored the bill -- said that a Microsoft official mentioned the threats in announcing Microsoft's flip-flop.

In light of the timing -- and the fact that the decision to switch positions on the bill used resources rather than conserved them -- it seems that something doesn't add up. The Seattle Times seemed to conclude as much with its headline Sunday: "Ballmer tries to explain Microsoft position." Message: Ballmer tried, but he didn't succeed.

The company is trying mightily to retain its gay-friendly image; in his email, Ballmer said that both he and Bill Gates personally support the anti-discrimination measure, even though "many employees and shareholders" do not. "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?"

It's not an unreasonable question to ask, but Microsoft might have asked it before it announced its support of the anti-discrimination bill in the first place. What message does a company send when it stands up against discrimination against gay men and lesbians and then changes its mind? "While Microsofts internal policies regarding GLBT diversity have been trend setting, its reversal sends a signal, intended or not, that it is no longer supportive of its GLBT employees, customers and shareholders," Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a letter to Ballmer Friday. "It implies a lack of support for its own employees as they seek housing and insurance coverage and creates the impression that Microsoft does not support equal treatment at businesses elsewhere in Washington. In fact, the strong stance of Microsoft on behalf of the GLBT community and our partnership with the organization in the past makes this feel like even more of a betrayal."

And HRC isn't the only gay-rights group reassessing its feelings about Microsoft today. Four years ago, the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center gave Microsoft its Corporate Vision Award. Now it's asking the company to give the award back. The group says it hasn't gotten a response from Microsoft yet. When it does, we have a pretty good idea of what it's going to be.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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