Paul Holmes

Microsoft's neutral stance on House Bill 1515 is an unfortunate reversal of its usual moxie

Microsoft's neutral stance on House Bill 1515 is an unfortunate reversal of its usual moxie

How the mighty have fallen.

Remember when Microsoft was the most red-blooded of all US corporations, expanding fearlessly, laughing in the face of critics, mocking regulators who attempted to put the brakes on its bid for global domination?

Today, the software giant is just another corporate jellyfish, terrified of taking a stand on a controversial issue, intimidated into neutrality by the threat of a boycott.

The background: Until recently, Microsoft was one of dozens of corporations in the Pacific Northwest - along with Boeing, Nike, Qwest, even Coors Brewing - that had endorsed Washington state's House Bill 1515. This bill would have protected gays and lesbians from discrimination in employment, housing, banking, and insurance, extending a law that already bars discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, or marital status.

Microsoft, which has a strong record of non-discrimination, had issued a letter of support for the legislation last year. But after company officials met with Pastor Ken Hutcherson from a "mega-church" close to Microsoft's Redmond, WA, headquarters, the company withdrew that support, announcing that it was now "neutral" on the legislation.

According to newspaper reports, Microsoft's general counsel told gay staffers at the company that Hutcherson had threatened a boycott of the company. But Microsoft's official position is that withdrawal of support for the measure was unconnected to that threat. According to a spokeswoman, "We made a decision before this legislative session, as we do each year, that we would focus our energy on a limited number of issues that are directly related to our business."

As an explanation of the about-face, that makes no sense. If the issue was energy, Microsoft had no need to say anything. Obviously, it takes more energy to announce a change in its position than to do nothing. If Microsoft was guided by a desire to conserve its resources, it could have done nothing: it was already on record supporting the bill and that support would have remained on the record without taxing the company's resources further.

What really happened, obviously, is that faced with a choice between offending gays and lesbians and offending those who are bigoted against them, Microsoft sought a neutral middle path and seems to be following current conventional corporate wisdom: When in doubt, stand for nothing.

Whether Microsoft's decision had an impact on the vote - the measure was defeated by 25-24 - we may never know. But if anyone at Microsoft is feeling good about having found a "compromise" solution, perhaps they should remember the wise words of Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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