Shorter Ballmer: Your rights, our silence

The Seattle Times has the text of the email Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer sent to Microsoft employees on Friday, trying to spin, spin, spin his way out of controversy. Alas, he spins so hard he ends up dizzily conceding the whole field and pledging that Microsoft will never take a stand on anything remotely controversial–unless profits are at stake:

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? What message does the company taking a position send to its employees who have strongly-held beliefs on the opposite side of the issue?

So… gays’ legal rights as full and equal citizens weigh less than the rights of Evangelicals to have the State enforce their views on morality. Got that? In this calculus, “I could be fired from my job for being gay” equals “My preacher says gays are dirty and evil.”

The bottom line is that I am adamant that Microsoft will always be a place that values diversity, that has the strongest possible internal policies for non-discrimination and fairness, and provides the best policies and benefits to all of our employees.

And if you’re not a blue-badge, well that’s just too bad. Just keep buying Windows, everybody!

I am also adamant that I want Microsoft to be a place where every employee feels respected, and where every employee feels like they belong. I don’t want the company to be in the position of appearing to dismiss the deeply-held beliefs of any employee, by picking sides on social policy issues.

Oh, but you are picking sides–the side that says “courage is costly” and “leadership is scary.” As Dante said, “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” I think I might respect Hutcherson more. At least he has the courage of his convictions, while Microsoft has now decreed publicly to possess neither courage nor conviction–only calculation.

And notice how Ballmer awards no extra “deeply held” points for being the member of a despised minority, told in hundreds of ways that you’re a second-class citizen. Nope, the views of Evangelicals whose pastor is on a jihad are just as deep and valid. Sexual identity and religious opinions are equally deeply held, so we can’t play favorites.

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 issues that go far beyond the software industry — and on which our employees and shareholders hold widely divergent opinions.

In other words, having an open letter of the company’s support of the measure you’re speaking in favor of as a private citizens doesn’t mean you can refer to the content of said open letter as a private citizen. If your employer agrees with you, best not to say it. Probably better still to wear a black bar over your eyes, have your voice altered, and identify your employer only as “a small software company in Washington State.” Because if the Corporation changes its mind on something, caveat loquitor. You’ll be responsible for whatever whiplash you get.

We are a public corporation with a duty first and foremost to a broad group of shareholders. On some issues, it is more appropriate for employees or shareholders to get involved as individual citizens. As CEO, I feel a real sense of responsibility around this question, and I believe there are important distinctions between my personal views on policy issues and when it’s appropriate to involve the company.

Well, glad that’s settled. I hope to see Steve Ballmer’s nondiscrimination policy covering household staff, professional service providers, and hairdressers. Microsoft has now saved itself a bunch of money, by making it clear that as long as taxation, labor policy, corporate accounting, immigration, outsourcing, enviromental laws, intellectual property, liability for business losses due to [ahem] software flaws or anything else important isn’t being discussed, it has no opinion and no dog in the fight. It like the Geico ad:
“I’ve got great news–I lost the respect of millions of Americans and most of our employees–but I just saved 15% on my lobbying bill!

Coolidge famously said “The business of America is business.” How true. Now we have the Ballmer corollary to the Collidge Doctrine: when corporate expedience requires our business leaders to be “good Germans” for the sake of patriotic profits, they’re apparently happy to sing whatever hymn fits. So don’t be surprised when your friendly local CEO starts singing along with whatever the piper is playing.

One thought on “Shorter Ballmer: Your rights, our silence”

  1. It has ever been thus – capitalists seek to protect and grow their capital. Labor is only necessary as a means of production. And woe to those worker bees that don’t keep their head down and get to work, leaving the religion, sex and politics out of their cubicle… there are plenty of people who know how to keep their nose to the grindstone in Bangalore.

    This is not about being an EOE or even a good corporate citizen. This is about ensuring the permits for their expansion (can’t get the bedroom-community up in arms over things they won’t understand) and keeping their investment in Ralph Reed and other conservative lobbyists with the administration’s ear calm and able to wring those next few concessions out of Justice and the FTC.

    The business of business, indeed. So, who will decide to stop doing business with the Soft? No one.

Comments are closed.