Mad at Microsoft

By Fred Kuhr

Originally published on Advocate.com June 21 2005 11:00 PM ET

When computer behemoth Microsoft pulled its support in April from a bill seeking to ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation in its home state of Washington, Jeff Koertzen was angry. So angry, in fact, that the gay operations program manager quit the company as of May 31.Although Microsoft eventually reinstated its support for the bill, Koertzen—who served as secretary-treasurer of GLEAM, Microsoft’s gay and lesbian employee group—still feels he made the right decision to stand up for what he believed was right. Explaining the company’s flip-flop back to the side of fairness, Microsoft spokeswoman Tami Begasse says that the company thinks “hard about when a company should get involved in broader issues and what is the appropriate balance for Microsoft to strike. After considering views from all sides, [company CEO] Steve [Ballmer] concluded that diversity in the workplace is an important issue for our business, and legislation on this issue should be part of our legislative agenda.”The bill, HB 1515, did pass the state house of representatives, but failed in the state senate by merely one vote, a loss that some attribute to Microsoft’s dramatic withdrawal of its support. (The state senator representing the district where Microsoft is based voted against the bill.) But while many were quick to blame Bill Gates, as the public face of Microsoft, Koertzen says that the public doesn’t know the story behind the story—and that the person to blame at Microsoft is not Gates, but corporate counsel and Senior Vice President Brad Smith, who caved in to political pressure from the antigay religious far right.Advocate.com: How did you first hear about Microsoft’s decision to take a “neutral” position on HB 1515 [thereby withdrawing its previously stated support for the bill]? Koertzen: I received an e-mail after Ken Hutcherson, the senior pastor at Antioch Bible Church here in Redmond, testified at a public hearing before the state legislature. He had told the legislators that they wouldn’t be hearing from Microsoft regarding the bill because he “took care of that,” and that he would be talking to Gates later. People here started to think, What the hell? This minister has an in?So what did you and others at GLEAM do?Well, we wanted to meet with Brad Smith, but he was out of the country. When he got back, we met with Brad and he told us that, yes, Microsoft would be neutral on the bill this year. He gave us this legal rigmarole about how the company was looking at social policies and that we have no decision-making framework on bills that do not directly relate to our business interests.Well, Microsoft has supported this bill for years without a so-called framework. And it’s not like we asked for money and resources from the company. All we asked is that Microsoft sign a letter of support. But this year, the only thing that changed was that Hutcherson complained to Smith. Worse yet, when we met with Brad, he told us that it was fair to say that he made the decision after talking with only one side of the issue. But later he came back to us and said that the decision had nothing to do with Hutcherson. He was clearly lying to us.So did Hutcherson actually meet with Smith?Yes, and their meeting started off with prayer. Now, my father is a Pentecostal minister. I was raised in the church. But when we at GLEAM heard about this, some of our hackles were raised.Hutcherson reportedly threatened a boycott. Is a company like Microsoft really afraid of a boycott?Look, Microsoft has been accused of being a monopoly by the federal government. Monopolies are not threatened by boycotts. What scared Brad was that Hutcherson claimed that the company was guilty of anti-Christian discrimination and he threatened lawsuits. Even if a court found in favor of Microsoft in such a suit, the damage would be done, much more damage than could ever be done by a boycott.What’s Microsoft’s connection to Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition?Ralph Reed is paid almost a quarter-million dollars a year to be Microsoft’s Washington lobbyist on antitrust issues. I think that’s a valid choice, since Reed has connections to the Bush White House. However, he was warned by Microsoft not to speak on any other kind of issue on behalf of Microsoft. And he hasn’t done that. But, who does he answer to? Legal counsel Brad Smith. So the two of them work closely together on antitrust issues. Do we honestly think that Brad and Ralph Reed don’t talk about anything else? Do you think I’m stupid?So let’s connect all the dots. Hutcherson, who socializes with Rush Limbaugh, has connections to the Washington state Christian Coalition. The national Christian Coalition used to be headed by Ralph Reed, who is now a paid lobbyist for Microsoft and answers to Brad Smith, whose job entails deciding what bills the company will support.So why did Microsoft change its mind again and decide to support the bill?Because a number of officials at Microsoft—including CEO Steve Ballmer—soon realized that this issue was not just a small matter that would go away quickly. Once this story hit The New York Times and the blogs, they knew employees all over the country would be reading about it. GLEAM put together a letter making a number of demands of Microsoft. A week later Ballmer responded with an e-mail that answered almost all of our demands. Microsoft not only decided to support the bill once again, but Ballmer made clear that diversity was a core value of Microsoft, so it was a mistake not to support the bill.How did Brad Smith react to this?I have not heard a peep from him since Microsoft changed its position.If Microsoft is supporting the bill again, why are you leaving?I’d wanted to leave for a while in order to start my own business. This ordeal simply gave me the final push. Some Microsoft employees were worried that they would be fired if they spoke out publicly against the company. So I decided to just take that issue off the table. If they wanted to fire me, I wouldn’t give them the option.Do you have any ill feelings toward Microsoft?No. But I do have ill feelings for Brad Smith. I believe Steve Ballmer will follow through, and he knows what the feedback has been. If the company doesn’t support this bill next year, he knows there’s going to be hell to pay. I still trust Microsoft as a company. But Microsoft now has to be careful. The gay community will be cautious in the future, as we should be.