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May 2008
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Controversial business


This Guardian article explains how big businesses who support anti-discrimination laws are under pressure from the Religious Right:

David Teather explains how US companies supporting anti-discriminatory legislation are under pressure from the religious right

David Teather
Wednesday May 4, 2005

Guardian Unlimited
Last week, Microsoft unwittingly found itself caught in the crosshairs of America's culture wars.

The software company is widely regarded as a progressive employer, and has offered benefits to the partners of its gay and lesbian workers since 1993. Earlier this year, it toughened up its anti-discrimination policy still further to cover "gender identity or expression", including transsexuals and transvestites.

It took Wal-Mart, the biggest employer in the US, until 2003 to even include a clause covering gays and lesbians in its anti-discrimination rules, although this was a welcome enough move from what is an otherwise deeply conservative company.

But in a widely reported decision, Microsoft recently withdrew its support for a bill that would have made it illegal to discriminate against gays and lesbians in its home state of Washington.

The company had supported a similar bill a year earlier, and its decision to take a "neutral" position caused uproar and drew accusations that it had bowed to the demands of religious conservatives.

Democratic representative Ed Murray, who sponsored the anti-discrimination bill, said he was "shocked and disappointed" by Microsoft's decision. "It was totally out of character," he added.

What might once have remained a local story has gained national attention in a climate in which the religious right has found a political voice, and issues such as same-sex marriage are at the top of the agenda. The liberal media asked whether the conservatives, emboldened by the re-election of George Bush, had gained sufficient might to cow even Microsoft?

The company admits it met with a local church group at least twice over its potential support of the anti-discrimination bill. Ken Hutcherson, the pastor of the Antioch Bible Church, who has organised rallies opposing same-sex marriages, told the New York Times that Microsoft had "backed off" after he threatened a national boycott of its products. "I told them I was going to give them something to be afraid of Christians about," he said.

He also demanded that two Microsoft employees who testified in support of the bill on their own behalf be fired, and that the company issue a statement against the legislation. Microsoft did neither.

Nevertheless, the ensuing storm caught it unawares. The company has lent its support to social issues in the past. It filed a letter to the courts in support for the University of Michigan's right to use affirmative action in its admission policies, and also took a stand locally in favour of increasing the Washington state sales tax by $1bn (£520m) to help improve education.

This time, though, Microsoft said it had decided to narrow its lobbying focus to a smaller number of bills directly affecting its business.

The chief executive, Steve Ballmer, sent an e-mail to Microsoft employees attempting to explain the firm's position. In the message, he underlinedits "hardcore" commitment to diversity, and also denied bowing to any pressure from the religious right. "I want to make it clear that is not the case," he wrote.

Mr Ballmer said both he and the Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates, "personally support this legislation", but realised that others in the company - including some who are members of Mr Hutcherson's congregation - did not.

"We are thinking hard about what is the right balance to strike - when should a public company take a position on a broader social issue, and when should it not?

"It's appropriate to invoke the company's name on issues of public policy that directly affect our business and our shareholders, but it's much less clear when it's appropriate to invoke the company's name on broader social issues that go far beyond the software industry - and on which our employees and shareholders hold widely divergent opinions," he said.

Other companies felt it was appropriate to support the bill in Washington state, which politicians have attempted to get passed for nearly three decades. The legislation would have made it illegal to discriminate in housing, employment and insurance.

Boeing, Nike, Hewlett-Packard, Levi-Strauss and Molson Coors all filed letters in support of the bill. Hewlett-Packard, for one, felt the legislation had a direct impact on its business. The head of the firm's public policy was asked by one interviewer why he had supported the bill, and answered: "One word - competitiveness. It's not just a nice thing to do. It's a requirement to be successful in the private sector".

Mr Murray believes there was no malicious intent at Microsoft, putting its decision to remain neutral on the bill down to "bumbling within the organisation".

In a subsequent interview with the Seattle Times, Mr Gates echoed Mr Ballmer's e-mail. "We didn't expect that kind of visibility," he said. "I mean, Microsoft's position on a political bill? Has that ever caused anything to pass or not pass?

"Next time this one comes around, we'll see," he added. "We certainly have a lot of employees who sent us mail. Next time it comes around, that'll be a major factor for us to take into consideration."

It is clear that Microsoft failed to recognise how far its decision would be scrutinised in the present charged atmosphere. The company perhaps also misjudged how important corporations are to the gay and lesbian community in the absence of government protection.

Not only are politicians at state and federal level seeking to outlaw same-sex marriages and civil unions, but it is also still legal to fire someone for being gay in dozens of states.

The bill in Washington State was again defeated by one vote.