Amid employee uproar, Microsoft is investigating sexual harassment claims overlooked by HR

Out of the shadows.
Out of the shadows.
Image: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri
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In a far-reaching email chain within Microsoft, women have shared stories of sexual harassment and discrimination, gaining notice from the company’s senior leadership team, according to more than 90 pages of emails reviewed by Quartz.

The chain started March 20 when one employee asked other women at the company for advice on how to move up in the organization, after six years in the same position without seeing the possibility of advancement. Dozens of women then shared their own frustrations about discrimination and sexual harassment, detailing allegations ranging from sexist comments during work trips to being told to sit on a coworker’s lap in front of a human resources leader. Another woman said on one project she was only given tasks like booking conference rooms, taking meeting notes, and making dinner reservations despite being in a technical role.

Quartz, which independently verified the content of the emails with two Microsoft employees who were included on the chain, is not identifying the employees quoted for the sake of their privacy. A Microsoft spokesperson verified that the company’s top HR executive had replied to the thread. The company is holding a regularly scheduled all-hands meeting today at 9:45am US Pacific time, where employees are expected to ask about the accusations described in the thread, according to one of the Microsoft employees who verified the emails.

“This thread has pulled the scab off a festering wound. The collective anger and frustration is palpable. A wide audience is now listening. And you know what? I’m good with that,” one Microsoft employee in the email chain wrote.

On the thread, some Microsoft employees also said that they found the discussion empowering and that they valued the willingness of their coworkers to come forward.

One female Microsoft employee alleged that during a work trip an employee of a partner company threatened to kill her if she did not perform implied sexual acts. “I raised immediate attention to HR and management,” she wrote. “My male manager told me that ‘it sounded like he was just flirting’ and I should ‘get over it’. HR basically said that since there was no evidence, and this man worked for a partner company and not Microsoft, there was nothing they could do.”

Another said that she had been called a “bitch” at work more than once, and found it was pervasive in the company. “We did a roundtables with the women when I was in Xbox core [team] & every woman, except for 1, had been called a bitch at work,” the Microsoft employee wrote. “Before people say this is just an Xbox thing (as I’ve heard that dismissiveness way too many times within Microsoft before) the other eng [engineering] orgs where my experiences happened were Windows & Azure. This is a Microsoft thing, a common one.”

Another Microsoft employee alleged she was asked to sit on someone’s lap while she was working as a “Microsoft Partner,” a senior level person in the organization.

“As a Microsoft Partner, was asked to sit on someone’s lap twice in one meeting in front of HR and other executives,” she wrote. “I can assure you that nothing was done. I alone objected and cited Microsoft policy. The person said that he did not have to listen and repeated the request a second time. No one said anything.”

Kathleen Hogan, Microsoft’s head of human resources, replied on March 29 after dozens of emails had accumulated on the chain, saying that she had raised the issue with the company’s senior leadership team, and would personally look into claims that were initially passed over by HR.

“I discussed this thread with the [senior leadership team] today. We are appalled and sad to hear about these experiences. It is very painful to hear these stories and to know that anyone is facing such behavior at Microsoft. We must do better,” Hogan wrote. “I would like to offer to anyone who has had such demeaning experiences including those who felt were dismissed by management or HR to email me directly. I will personally look into the situation with my team.”

A Microsoft spokesperson verified the content of Hogan’s response. CEO Satya Nadella and chief legal officer Brad Smith were also included on the list of recipients in the email chain.

Microsoft has faced scrutiny for sexual harassment in the recent past. A class action lawsuit filed in March 2018 alleged 238 cases of sexual harassment or discrimination between 2010 and 2016 were not taken seriously enough.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct that the Microsoft Partner was not a Microsoft collaborator from an outside organization, but a senior-level person at Microsoft.

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