Ballmer explains reversal on gay rights bill

Microsoft's CEO says he and Bill Gates were pondering the role major corporations should play in larger social debates.

SEATTLE--Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer sent what company executives described as an unusual e-mail message on Friday evening to roughly 35,000 employees in the United States, defending Microsoft's widely criticized decision not to support an antidiscrimination bill for gay people in Washington state this year.

The e-mail message came as company executives, inundated by internal messages from angry employees, withering attacks on the Web and biting criticism from gay rights groups, sought to quell rancor following the disclosure this week that the company, which had supported the bill in past years, did not do so this year. Critics argue that the decision resulted from pressure from a prominent local evangelical Christian church.


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In his message, posted on several Web logs on Saturday and confirmed by company officials, Ballmer wrote that he had done "a lot of soul searching over the past 24 hours." He said that he and Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, both personally supported the bill but that the company had decided not to take an official stance on the legislation this year. He said they were pondering the role major corporations should play in larger social debates.

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

The bill, which has been debated in the Legislature for years and would have extended protections against discrimination in employment, housing and other areas to gay men and lesbians, failed by one vote Thursday.

Critics, including some Microsoft employees and a state legislator, who said they had conversations with company officials about their decision, said a high-level Microsoft executive had indicated that the company withdrew its support because of pressure from a local minister, Ken Hutcherson. Hutcherson opposed the bill and said he had threatened a national boycott of Microsoft.

Company executives have denied any connection between the threatened boycott and their decision not to support the bill.

Microsoft, which is based in Redmond, Wash., east of Seattle, has long been known for being at corporate America's forefront on gay rights, extending employee benefits to same-sex couples. In his e-mail message, Ballmer said, "As long as I am CEO, Microsoft is going to be a company that is hard-core about diversity, a company that is absolutely rigorous about having a nondiscriminatory environment, and a company that treats every employee fairly."

Ballmer described the antidiscrimination measure as posing a "very difficult issue for many people, with strong emotions on all sides." He wrote, "both Bill and I actually both personally support this legislation," adding, "but that is my personal view, and I also know that many employees and shareholders would not agree with me."

Blogs and chat rooms on the Web were filled Saturday with lively debate about Microsoft's actions, including postings from people who said they would now buy products from other software companies and encourage others to do the same.

One posting Friday on a Web log run by "Microsophist," who promises "an unfiltered and unfettered view of Microsoft from the inside," said of Ballmer's memo: "When I read the mail, I felt some relief (the situation wasn't as bad as I'd first thought) followed by disappointment as he's basically saying he doesn't want to do anything that might cross the religious right."

A gay Microsoft employee who read the e-mail message from Ballmer on Saturday and spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution said: "Overall, it's a good thing that Steve is reaffirming the company's commitment to it's internal antidiscrimination policies. But I'm disappointed that he would give equal weight to the views of employees or shareholders who would condone discrimination as to those who would be the subject of discrimination."

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