By SARAH KERSHAW
Microsoft, faced with unrelenting criticism from employees and gay
rights groups over its decision to abandon support of a gay rights
bill in Washington state, reversed course again yesterday and
announced that it was now in support of the bill.
Steve Ballmer, the company's chief executive, announced the reversal
in an e-mail message sent to 35,000 employees in the United
States. "After looking at the question from all sides, 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,"
Mr. Ballmer said.
He added: "I respect that there will be different viewpoints. But as
C.E.O., I am doing what I believe is right for our company as a
Long known for its internal policies protecting gay employees from
discrimination and offering them benefits, Microsoft sparked an uproar
when officials decided to take a "neutral" stance on the
antidiscrimination bill this year, after having supported it the two
Critics, including employees who said they were told that Microsoft
would back the bill, said the decision to withdraw support had been
made under pressure from a local evangelical preacher who threatened
to boycott the company if it supported the legislation this
year. Company officials have disputed the accusation.
The bill, which would have extended protections against discrimination
in employment, housing and other areas to gay men and lesbians, failed
by one vote on April 21. But it is automatically up for a new vote
next year because bills introduced in the Washington Legislature are
active for two years even if they are voted down the first time.
After the defeat, Mr. Ballmer sent an e-mail message to company
employees, defending the decision to withdraw support. In that note,
Mr. Ballmer said that he and Microsoft's founder, Bill Gates,
personally supported the measure but felt the company needed to focus
its legislative efforts on measures that had a more direct connection
to their business.
In yesterday's message Mr. Ballmer suggested that employees' responses
had helped persuade Microsoft officials to renew their backing of the
measure. More than 1,500 employees signed an internal petition
demanding that the company support the bill, and scores wrote in
protest to Mr. Ballmer and Mr. Gates.
A Microsoft executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that
senior company officials met after Microsoft's widely publicized
turnaround on the bill prompted an uproar, and that they had decided
to change the company's stance because of pressure from employees.
"This issue got attention at the highest levels of the company in a
way it didn't before," said the executive, who did not attend the
meeting but was briefed on it. "It was a rocky path, but we got to the
Some lawmakers had said that Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., could
have lent crucial backing to the legislation through influence on
lawmakers representing Redmond and the suburbs outside Seattle.
In explaining why the company had not supported the bill this year,
Mr. Ballmer and other Microsoft officials had said over the last two
weeks that they were re-examining their legislative priorities and
debating when and whether to become involved in public policy debates.
Gay rights groups said they were contacted by Microsoft officials
before Mr. Ballmer's statement was publicly released. They applauded
"We're very happy," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights
Campaign, a national gay advocacy group.
Mr. Solmonese met recently with several Microsoft employees after he
learned of the earlier decision not to back the bill, which was first
disclosed by The Stranger, an alternative weekly newspaper in Seattle.
The Microsoft officials, Mr. Solmonese said, "took it very seriously."
"They said that there had been a huge outpouring of concern via
e-mail, both internally and externally," he said.
Ed Murray, an openly gay state legislator from Seattle and a sponsor
of the bill, said of the company's reversal: "I think it's
important. It sent a message that this issue is not simply a so-called
social issue or cultural war issue, but it's an issue that is good for
business, and it's an issue that business considers important."
But the company's decision disappointed others, including Microsoft
employees who belong to the Antioch Bible Church in Redmond. The
church is led by the Rev. Ken Hutcherson, who met with Microsoft
officials twice about the bill and claimed to have persuaded them to
change their position on it.
"I feel that it's been kind of a stressful day," said a Microsoft
employee who is a member of the church and who spoke on condition of
anonymity. "I feel that it was wrong for the company to say that they
will be supporting issues such as this. Businesses should not actually
be publicly taking a stance on that, regardless of their internal
The employee, who has worked at Microsoft for four years, said the
company should "stay out of it" when it comes to the debate over gay
Dr. Hutcherson, whose church offices are near Microsoft's
headquarters, said earlier that he believed his boycott threat had
persuaded Microsoft not to support the bill. He did not respond to
messages left yesterday on his cellphone and at his office.
Microsoft responded that "Dr. Hutcherson will have to do what he feels
is best regards boycotts, etc." and we will do what we feel is best
to protect all our employees."
Steve Lohr contributed reporting for this article.
Copyright 2005 New York Times Company
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