People who follow the software industry know that products from Microsoft often follow a similar progression curve: Version 1.0 of any new application is awful. Version 2.0 comes closer to the mark. And Version 3.0 gets things right.
Today, Microsoft announced Version 3.0 of its stance on gay rights. After weeks of reversals -- and at times tortured explanations for the company's sudden decision, late in April, to drop its support for legislation in Washington state that would have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation -- Microsoft now says that in the future, it will endorse gay-friendly laws.
"I've concluded that diversity in the workplace is such an important issue for our business that it should be included in our legislative agenda," Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO, wrote, in an e-mail to employees. (It was made public by Robert Scoble, a blogging Microserf.)
Ballmer did not explain why Microsoft changed its mind on the Washington bill -- HB 1515 -- in the first place (after the company pulled its support, the Washington Senate defeated the law by one vote). Many observers have speculated that the reversal may have had something to do with Rev. Ken Hutcherson, the minister of a mega-church in Redmond, Wash, who had threatened to boycott Microsoft if it supported the bill. In his e-mail Ballmer didn't mention Hutcherson, saying only that "there was a lot of confusion and miscommunication, and we are taking steps to improve our processes going forward."
But Ballmer did say that "if legislation similar to HB 1515 is introduced in future sessions, we will support it." And, remarkably, Ballmer promised to endorse anti-discrimination legislation beyond the Washington bill. "I'm proud of Microsoft's commitment to non-discrimination in our internal policies and benefits, but our policies can't cover the range of housing, education, financial and similar services that our people and their partners and families need," he wrote. "Therefore, it's appropriate for the company to support legislation that will promote and protect diversity in the workplace. Accordingly, Microsoft will continue to join other leading companies in supporting federal legislation that would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation -- adding sexual orientation to the existing law that already covers race, sex, national origin, religion, age and disability. Given the importance of diversity to our business, it is appropriate for the company to endorse legislation that prohibits employment discrimination on all of these grounds."
Ballmer's pro-diversity position is admirable -- but it's also not surprising. Microsoft is the king of an of an industry whose chief raw material is human creativity, and whose main fuel is brain power. As the economist Richard Florida has pointed out, such well-educated employees often care about where their firms stands on important social issues. The kind of people who are drawn to software engineering tend to be progressives on issues like gay rights (that's why, incidentally, the tech economy is centered in California, not Kansas).
Seen in this light, Microsoft's initial waffle on HB 1515 was not only shameful, it was bad for business -- perhaps for sales, definitely for corporate morale. Many employees were appalled by the company's decision. And who knows how many prospective employees decided to look for work elsewhere when they heard about the company's stance?
But say what you want about Microsoft, it's not a firm known for sticking with dumb business decisions, Rev. Hutcherson be damned.