Microsoft announced a major shift in how it will handle discrimination cases, in an internal email to employees. Starting in 2020, the company said it would increase infrastructure to handle internal investigations more fairly and quickly, according to a memo to employees written by CEO Satya Nadella.
It is the third part of the memo that is worth paying attention to — Nadella promised more “transparency around the outcomes from these investigations,” with a view to publish “at least once a year” information about the types of concerns raised, the rate that violations occur and the types of discipline imposed.
I cannot overstate how remarkable this is for a company of this size.
The standard operating procedure when it comes to discrimination in large companies has long favored perpetrators. I’ve long seen organizations, citing privacy, quickly dismiss claims or put unnecessary and burdensome requirements of proof on the victims. In an attempt to uphold a company’s image, sexual harassment or assault victims — disproportionately women — are too often silenced. When a claim does make it through investigations, a woman’s reputation is cemented as a “troublemaker,” while the man, who is most likely senior, is given a free pass. An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission study finds that three out of four victims never report the harassment they face, related to intimidation, job security, and fear of retaliation. Plus, as any trauma expert will attest; the process of reporting is set up to re-traumatize victims.
Here too, Microsoft has vowed to address this issue by ensuring there is leadership accountability if the recommended disciplinary action is not pursued. Simply put, it will be a lot harder to have a bad actor continue their behavior, just because they are influential or well-liked at the organization.
Considering the EEOC reports that one in four women will be subject to sexual harassment at work, this should be top priority for organization leaders to address.
Sexual harassment remains more prevalent in male-dominated industries, and considering only one in five local technology employees identify as female, the industry is ripe for an overhaul.
Sure, there are larger societal problems that need to be fixed. But in a capitalistic society where large companies have outsize influence, these moves toward accountability and transparency could help bridge the issues that still plague our workplaces.
Years ago, I worked at a company where a male executive had sexually harassed a colleague. After more than a month of debating whether she should report the incident, she finally did. Once it came to light, the executive was swiftly dismissed, but no information about the departure was provided by the company, and he departed on friendly terms. The last I saw on LinkedIn, he was still an executive. As sexual harassment and discrimination remains rampant in a number of industries, it is time for company leaders to step forward to take the lead.
Sustainable change can only come from transparency, challenging or awkward as that may be. In the past, companies would ask: What would happen to our brand reputation for potential employees and customers, if word of harassment or discrimination got out? Now, the question company leaders should be asking is: What would happen to our reputation if we don’t own up to and actively work to combat harassment and discrimination?
While the original complaints of discrimination at Microsoft that initially surfaced are harrowing, to the say the least, I am encouraged by the swift change that the organization, led by Nadella, is taking. Most important — the organization seems to have listened to its women. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, the saying goes, and I am happy to see the light. Plagued by sensitivity and frankly, awkwardness, I’ve seen very few company leaders tackle sexual harassment and discrimination head on.
Microsoft sets an important precedent and I look forward to seeing the results of their reporting. Now that they’ve laid the groundwork, here’s hoping other companies in our region will quickly follow suit.