Microsoft Sexual Harassment Blow-Up Casts Light on Core Tech Issue

It all started with an email chain: Dozens of women at Microsoft sharing their experiences with sexual harassment and discrimination. Now it’s grown into a major corporate issue—even as the tech industry as a whole continues to wrestle with a legacy of bad behavior.

The chain, which eventually expanded to the equivalent of 90 printed pages as more employees participated, was reviewed by Quartz, which independently verified portions of it. Individual workers recounted stories of degrading comments by co-workers, inappropriate requests (one co-worker was allegedly ordered to sit on another’s lap), and even death threats.

“I discussed this thread with the [senior leadership team] today. We are appalled and sad to hear about these experiences. It is very painful to hear these stories and to know that anyone is facing such behavior at Microsoft. We must do better,” Kathleen Hogan, Microsoft’s head of human resources, reportedly replied to the chain. “I would like to offer to anyone who has had such demeaning experiences including those who felt were dismissed by management or HR to email me directly. I will personally look into the situation with my team.” (Microsoft confirmed Hogan’s response to The Verge.)

Microsoft has spent years fighting a class-action lawsuit over discrimination and harassment; although women at the company filed 238 internal complaints over such issues between 2010 and 2016 (including 118 gender discrimination complaints), Microsoft claimed only one was “founded,” according to court documents examined by Reuters.

At the same time, Microsoft has poured considerable resources into diversity and inclusion initiatives. For example, “inclusion” is now part of employees’ performance review process, and executive compensation is tethered to diversity targets.

This latest controversy illuminates a key schism within the tech community at the moment: As employees complain about years of discrimination and harassment, companies pledge to “do better”—but it’s often an open question whether those improvements are indeed systemic, or merely the minimum possible commitment to avoid lawsuits and internal rebellion.

For example, Uber made a very public show of changing its ways after a very, very bad 2017. That included a massive multi-million-dollar settlement with women and people of color who accused the company of workplace discrimination and harassment, and the firing of 20 employees for misconduct. But it will likely take years to determine whether Uber’s culture has truly shifted.

In a similar vein, Google faced massive protests after an article in the New York Times named Andy Rubin, who ran Google’s Android division before leaving in 2014, and Google X head Richard DeVaul as executives who behaved inappropriately with employees and job candidates. Rubin reportedly received a $90 million payout when he left the company. (In a Tweet, Rubin denied the Times report, saying it was riddled with “numerous inaccuracies”; DeVaul resigned.)

Google claims its internal culture has changed in the wake of these incidents. “There are serious consequences for anyone who behaves inappropriately at Google,” the company wrote in a statement earlier in 2019. “In recent years, we’ve made many changes to our workplace and taken an increasingly hard line on inappropriate conduct by people in positions of authority.”

And to be fair, Google vowed to actually overhaul its sexual misconduct policy, including an end to forced arbitration for full-time employees and contractors. But as with Uber, it can take a long time to change corporate culture. It will be interesting to see what Microsoft does in the wake of this most recent scandal.