Microsoft hires law firm to review sexual harassment policies, probe gender discrimination

Tech giant promises to create an implementation plan based on outcome

Microsoft's board of directors has hired a law firm to review its sexual harassment and gender discrimination policies and practices following a shareholder proposal.

"This review responds to an advisory shareholder resolution that passed during the 2021 Annual Shareholders Meeting, and it will build on steps the company has taken in recent years to address these issues and strengthen Microsoft's culture," said a statement [PDF] from the company.

The shareholder vote came at the urging of Arjuna Capital after the investment management firm warned that "sexual harassment at Microsoft presents a material investment risk."

The company did not have a history of adequately resolving such matters, had not followed best practice for independent investigations, and had not committed to publicly reporting on the accusations against Bill Gates, the shareholder resolution said at the time.

The Microsoft co-founder resigned in 2020, just days before allegations surfaced alleging improper conduct. At the time, a Gates Ventures representative told The Reg: "The claim of mistreatment of employees is ... false."

Microsoft has hired so-called "white-shoe" law firm Arent Fox to conduct the third-party review. The phrase white shoe refers to the laced suede white shoes favoured by Ivy League college students – the implication being that such a firm is more than a few decades old and is well-established amongst the upper crust.

If the name "Arent Fox" rings a bell then, well, it should. It is the same outfit that put together an investigation report concerning China-based surveillance kit maker Hikvision's human rights compliance process and concluded that there was nothing to see, as per a document published by Hikvision [PDF].

According to the Windows giant, Arent Fox hasn't been involved in representing Microsoft "in employment matters" and hasn't done a significant amount of work for the company in the past.

As for Microsoft, its Board of Directors wants Arent Fox to "address the full scope of the proposal passed at the Annual Shareholders Meeting."

The company will then publish a transparency report, doubtless festooned with stock images of smiling employees. The report is expected in the spring.

Additionally, the management team will create an implementation plan for acting on ensuing recommendations, Microsoft said.

The review will also include a study of concerns raised by a 2019 email chain from females at the company that consisted of personal accounts of gender discrimination and sexual harassment ranging from overt to microaggressions. And Redmond-based HQ has promised the Senior Leadership Team would not get a free pass as any past accusations against the team or board members will be assessed.

Any findings will be compared against how other companies deal with similar issues, establishing comparative norms, which is probably a good thing, but given the clear difficulties that are faced by women in tech, The Reg isn't holding its breath on that specific part being useful.

"We're committed not just to reviewing the report but learning from the assessment so we can continue to improve the experiences of our employees," said CEO Satya Nadella, who referred to the corporation's culture as his number-one priority. ®

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