By SARAH KERSHAW
Published: May 7, 2005 in The New York Times
[There are linked related stories on both the church that was at the center of the threatened boycott, and the resulting controversy, at the link above, as of this writing.--s_s]
Microsoft, faced with unrelenting criticism from employees and gay rights groups over its decision to abandon support of a gay rights bill in Washington state, reversed course again yesterday and announced that it was now in support of the bill.
Steve Ballmer, the company's chief executive, announced the reversal in an e-mail message sent to 35,000 employees in the United States. "After looking at the question from all sides, I've concluded that diversity in the workplace is such an important issue for our business that it should be included in our legislative agenda," Mr. Ballmer said.
He added: "I respect that there will be different viewpoints. But as C.E.O., I am doing what I believe is right for our company as a whole."
Long known for its internal policies protecting gay employees from discrimination and offering them benefits, Microsoft sparked an uproar when officials decided to take a "neutral" stance on the antidiscrimination bill this year, after having supported it the two previous years.
Critics, including employees who said they were told that Microsoft would back the bill, said the decision to withdraw support had been made under pressure from a local evangelical preacher who threatened to boycott the company if it supported the legislation this year. Company officials have disputed the accusation.
The bill, which would have extended protections against discrimination in employment, housing and other areas to gay men and lesbians, failed by one vote on April 21. But it is automatically up for a new vote next year because bills introduced in the Washington Legislature are active for two years even if they are voted down the first time.
After the defeat, Mr. Ballmer sent an e-mail message to company employees, defending the decision to withdraw support. In that note, Mr. Ballmer said that he and Microsoft's founder, Bill Gates, personally supported the measure but felt the company needed to focus its legislative efforts on measures that had a more direct connection to their business.
In yesterday's message Mr. Ballmer suggested that employees' responses had helped persuade Microsoft officials to renew their backing of the measure. More than 1,500 employees signed an internal petition demanding that the company support the bill, and scores wrote in protest to Mr. Ballmer and Mr. Gates.
A Microsoft executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that senior company officials met after Microsoft's widely publicized turnaround on the bill prompted an uproar, and that they had decided to change the company's stance because of pressure from employees.
"This issue got attention at the highest levels of the company in a way it didn't before," said the executive, who did not attend the meeting but was briefed on it. "It was a rocky path, but we got to the right place."
Some lawmakers had said that Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., could have lent crucial backing to the legislation through influence on lawmakers representing Redmond and the suburbs outside Seattle.
In explaining why the company had not supported the bill this year, Mr. Ballmer and other Microsoft officials had said over the last two weeks that they were re-examining their legislative priorities and debating when and whether to become involved in public policy debates.
Gay rights groups said they were contacted by Microsoft officials before Mr. Ballmer's statement was publicly released. They applauded the decision.
"We're very happy," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay advocacy group.
Mr. Solmonese met recently with several Microsoft employees after he learned of the earlier decision not to back the bill, which was first disclosed by The Stranger, an alternative weekly newspaper in Seattle.
The Microsoft officials, Mr. Solmonese said, "took it very seriously."
"They said that there had been a huge outpouring of concern via e-mail, both internally and externally," he said.
Ed Murray, an openly gay state legislator from Seattle and a sponsor of the bill, said of the company's reversal: "I think it's important. It sent a message that this issue is not simply a so-called social issue or cultural war issue, but it's an issue that is good for business, and it's an issue that business considers important."
But the company's decision disappointed others, including Microsoft employees who belong to the Antioch Bible Church in Redmond. The church is led by the Rev. Ken Hutcherson, who met with Microsoft officials twice about the bill and claimed to have persuaded them to change their position on it.
"I feel that it's been kind of a stressful day," said a Microsoft employee who is a member of the church and who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I feel that it was wrong for the company to say that they will be supporting issues such as this. Businesses should not actually be publicly taking a stance on that, regardless of their internal policies."
The employee, who has worked at Microsoft for four years, said the company should "stay out of it" when it comes to the debate over gay rights.
Dr. Hutcherson, whose church offices are near Microsoft's headquarters, said earlier that he believed his boycott threat had persuaded Microsoft not to support the bill. He did not respond to messages left yesterday on his cellphone and at his office.
Steve Lohr contributed reporting for this article.