Big name Microsoft execs have come under heavy scrutiny recently for bullying and sexual harassment complaints, but a new easy, breezy independent report requested by the company isn’t ready to hold anyone’s feet to the fire.
Microsoft announced Tuesday that a third-party report on the company’s sexual harassment parties was finally complete. That report, conducted by the Washington D.C.-based law firm ArentFox Schiff, makes the case that Microsoft is already pretty golden, that its current measures against gender discrimination and harassment are “robust” and that it has been making meaningful improvements.
However, the massive 50-page report largely glosses over accusations against former Microsoft executives, letting the company slide for keeping known abusers and bullies on the payroll.
The report only does a short, shallow dive into sexual harassment claims made against Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in 2019, when the former CEO was still a member of Microsoft’s board. Gates left the board in 2020 after members investigated allegations he tried to “initiate an intimate relationship with a company employee” going all the way back into 2000. A 2021 Wall Street Journal report noted that Gates resigned from the board before the board’s initial investigation into the co-founder was even complete.
This latest report notes that an unnamed Microsoft employee reported to Microsoft’s human resources chief Kathleen Hogan in 2019, telling her that Gates had engaged in “inappropriate communications” with her. Though Gates later confirmed that he had been seeing this person in 1999, he argued any communications and meetings were consensual. Gates vacated his position as Microsoft CEO in 2000 and had been slowly relinquishing his responsibilities at the company he founded. The billionaire resigned from the Microsoft board in 2020, and the unnamed person who accused the founder of harassment has also left, according to the report. All of this was before Gates and his wife Melinda divorced in 2021.
None of this is really new, and it seems the investigation was ready to let any lingering questions go unanswered. The lack of detail or really any thorough examination of events is especially notable since this has been a process that started two years ago. At the time, low level Microsoft staff blasted their own company in lengthy email threads over its handling of sexual harassment claims. Because of those complaints, some Microsoft shareholders pushed for an investigation of Microsoft’s policies as well as more details about these sexual harassment claims against Gates. As much as the company wanted to let the whole thing go after their initial investigation, Arjuna Capital, one of the shareholding entities in Microsoft, sponsored the review that finally kicked off in 2021.
Natasha Lamb, a managing partner at Arjuna, told Bloomberg that even though the report was “comprehensive,’ they “hoped to see more” about the allegations against Gates.
Other execs were represented in the report as well. A Business Insider report from earlier this year noted that two company vice presidents and longtime Microsoft veterans, Tom Keane (who worked on Microsoft Azure) and Alex Kipman (HoloLens inventor who worked on the Xbox Kinect controller) were reportedly abusive to the employees under them. It’s been reported that Kipman was known by fellow employees for being abusive to female workers in particular, which allegedly included rubbing a woman’s shoulders without asking or even watching “VR porn” in front of other employees.
Both execs are no longer with the company, but Microsoft asked ArentFox to include a review of those allegations in the report. The pair are not listed by name in the document, and the firm noted it did not reinvestigate the allegations. Instead, the investigators said that there was “a perception among some employees that the company tolerates and to some degree protects high performing senior executives who may be engaging in inappropriate conduct.” Employees also felt that these allegations should have been dealt with earlier.
ArentFox wrote that they randomly selected 54 of 155 employees who raised harassment complaints, and just 20 agreed to an interview. Based on those interviews, the firm noted that almost none of the witnesses for these allegations remained in the same role, mostly out of fear their careers would be harmed as a result. Several mentioned they felt they had promotions or pay increases delayed because of them speaking out, and more wondered if HR was “filtering” complaints that would necessitate further review.
One witness told the firm:
“It makes no sense that they found a pattern of bad behavior but told me my complaint couldn’t be substantiated because he treated everyone that way instead of just some people.”
Despite all these complaints, the report’s writers considered that Microsoft was still doing a good job relative to other companies’ practices. The most the firm does is recommend the company update definitions of sexual harassment and discrimination in its existing policy. It also suggested Microsoft should add some more specifics about how the company conducts its investigation process and revise its guidelines to let the “severity of the behavior” and “impact on the [victim]” help determine what discipline to impose.
Still, even though the report seems to make a glowing review of Microsoft, some departments show an outsized number of gender and sexual discrimination and harassment claims. Engineering, in particular, accounted for nearly 40% of all complaints. The second highest was sales at 25%.
In the company release, Microsoft said it will conduct targeted reviews and revisions of their harassment policies and conduct more employee and manager training. CEO Satya Nadella said the company’s board and execs “are fully committed to this implementation plan as we continually work to close the gap between our espoused culture and the lived experience of our employees.”
Many of these complaints made by Microsoft employees echo what women have faced at other tech companies, including main Microsoft rival Apple. Apple also similarly said it plans to make changes to its policies after the most recent reports of harassment from employees. What makes Microsoft’s response so jarring is it seems to ignore the fact that high-ranking executives were influencing the company culture for years, and that it took outside investigations before they were finally brought to heel.