Transparency pledge | Microsoft orders probe into sexual harassment claims & Bill Gates' conduct

Microsoft orders probe into sexual harassment claims & Bill Gates' conduct

Microsoft has launched a probe into its handling of workplace sexual harassment, including allegations against its founder Bill Gates, the company has revealed.

As reported by the New York Times, the tech behemoth’s Board of directors has appointed independent firm Arent Fox, based in Washington DC, to review its sexual harassment and gender discrimination policies. And, according to the New York Times, they will also look into various sexual harassment allegations against Gates and his company, dating back to 2000.

As reported by the New York Times, Gates is alleged to have solicited at least two employees while still in charge of Microsoft. This includes an incident in 2007, when after sitting through a presentation by an employee, he immediately emailed her to ask for a date.

Reports of the billionaire having a sexual relationship with a Microsoft engineer, circa 2000, are also highly likely to be looked into as part of the probe.

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The review responds to an advisory shareholder resolution that passed during the 2021 Annual Shareholders Meeting, and will “build on steps the company has taken in recent years to address these issues and strengthen Microsoft’s culture”, the company announced.

The results of the investigation will be made public after its completion around Spring, the firm estimates.

In a statement published on the company’s website, Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s Chairman and CEO, said: “Our culture remains our number one priority and the entire Board appreciates the critical importance of a safe and inclusive environment for all Microsoft employees. 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. I embrace this comprehensive review as an opportunity to continue to get better”.

The review will involve:

  • The public release of a transparency report assessing the effectiveness of the company's workplace sexual harassment and gender discrimination policies, training, and related policies. The review will also include an analysis of policies, practices, and commitments to create a safe, inclusive work environment.

  • The report will summarize the results of any sexual harassment investigations during this same timeframe against members of the Board of Directors and the company’s Senior Leadership Team, including the allegations that a Board committee investigated beginning in 2019 involving Bill Gates.

  • It will assess the steps that have been taken to hold employees, including executives, accountable for sexual harassment or gender discrimination.

  • The report will include data on the number of sexual harassment cases investigated and their resolution.

Worrying rise in harassment claims

Sadly, such cases are not unique to Microsoft. In fact, if recent data is to be believed, it seems that the majority of companies are failing to instil sexual harassment training among their workforce.

A recent TalentLMS and Purple Campaign report polled over 1,200 employees, and found that 92% of women surveyed said that unwanted physical contact counts as sexual harassment, compared to 78% of men surveyed.

Suggestive remarks were considered harassment by 88% of women and just 69% of men; likewise, sexual jokes were frowned upon by 86% of women and 69% of men.

Additionally, 73% of women surveyed said comments regarding someone's gender identity and expression were sexual harassment, compared to 47% of men.

“There is still a long way to go in educating employers and employees,” said Christina Gialleli, Director of People Ops at TalentLMS, said in the research.

“With over 75% of women and 85% of men reporting they feel safer at work after having received training, it’s clear that sexual harassment training needs to be a part of every company’s yearly curriculum.”

Preventing sexual harassment

According to ACAS, sexual harassment is “unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature” and the law protects employees, workers, contractors, self-employed and job applicants from this.

For this to be considered as sexual harassment, the unwanted behaviour must have either violated someone’s dignity, whether it was intended or not, or created a hostile environment for them, whether it was intended or not, the governmental body adds.

Data carried out by the Everyday Sexism Project and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) discovered that 52% of women have been victims of unwanted sexual behaviours at work - from groping to inappropriate jokes.

As such, it is crucial that employers do all that they can to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

In a previous interview, Katie Hodson, Partner and Head of Employment at SAS Daniels LLP, told HR Grapevine that in instances of sexual harassment, employers should have “robust policies in place”.

She previously pointed out that “staff need to be clear that this behaviour is unacceptable and aware of the consequences of breaching the policies. This could be supported by staff training”.

“Further, any and all complaints should be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. This would include asking relevant questions and looking at the evidence with a clear and unbiased viewpoint,” Hodson concluded.

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