Microsoft executive
AP Photo/Altaf Qadri
People in positions of power need to encourage discussion of sexual harassment rather than trying to keep it quiet.
WELL DONE

A Microsoft exec shows how to handle an uproar at work without shutting it down

By Sarah Todd

Last week, Microsoft was rocked by the outing of an extensive email chain in which women detailed allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination they’ve experienced while working at the Seattle-based software giant. In 90 pages’ worth of emails, as first reported by Quartz, women shared stories of egregious behavior—from death threats to a request to sit on someone’s lap—including incidents that they had reported to management or human resources, only to be dismissed.

Given the seriousness of the allegations, as well as accusations that management had allowed the problems to fester, one might have expected the higher-ups at Microsoft to attempt to nip the email chain in the bud. As researchers Dulini Fernando and Ajnesh Prasad wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2018, managers and HR departments have a track record of attempting to silence women who speak out about harassment at work.

Sure enough, the Women at Microsoft group on Microsoft’s internal messaging system, Yammer, was temporarily deleted last week, a Microsoft employee told Quartz. The group was later reinstated, with the official explanation that an employee had uploaded a sensitive document so the entire channel had to be taken down.

Whatever the reason, it wasn’t a good look. But the email thread also prompted at least one response worth celebrating.

One executive was quick to respond to the email chain with a counterintuitive message. Instead of attempting to cut off a sensitive conversation, her response validated the original author’s concerns and invited further communication. Her response, copied below, offers a case study in how managers and leaders at all levels of a company can offer a productive and respectful response when employees raise the subject of discrimination and other serious issues in the workplace. (Quartz is not naming the women involved in the emails in order to protect their privacy.)

The email chain began with a Microsoft worker asking for advice from other women at the company. She was having trouble advancing her career and suspected that gender was a factor. Two other women responded with brief, supportive messages. Then the executive jumped in, writing:

I was disappointed to read your email and hear that you have not had a good experience. I am going to set up time with you to follow up and learn more. I don’t want anyone in my organization, Microsoft, or frankly anywhere to feel this way. I know we have a lot more to do with respect to career planning for datacenter technicians and as a result recently launched the Career hub. My team is working on how to communicate this more effectively and broadly so everyone knows what resources are available. We are also in the process of training our Datacenter managers to be better positioned to lead, coach and mentor.

I want you to know you have my support. Also, any other offers, please reach out directly to [the other woman]. Will be in touch shortly.

There are several things worth highlighting in the executive’s response. First, she acknowledges that the other woman’s feelings of frustration and disappointment are valid, and promises to set aside time for a one-on-one to discuss the woman’s experience of being denied promotions. In this way, her email models the advice from Daena Giardella, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, on how managers should handle sexual harassment claims. “Learn to take stories about sexual harassment in your organization seriously,” she wrote in a May 2018 piece for Quartz. “Be careful about snap assessments that a certain story or comment ‘is not a big deal,’ or not ‘worthy’ of being further investigated.”

Second, the executive declares that while she doesn’t want anyone to feel that it’s impossible to advance in this particular area, she knows that Microsoft has more work to do. And while she highlights the career resources and training programs that are underway in an effort to improve advancement opportunities at the company, she does not suggest that they will offer a silver-bullet solution.

Lastly—and perhaps most importantly—the executive offers her personal support and encourages other women on the email chain to reach out as well. In this way, she effectively signaled to the larger group of women on the chain that they would not be penalized for sharing information with one another. That kind of assurance from a person in a powerful position is an important ingredient for an open discussion, since many women are rightfully wary of the consequences of speaking out.

Dozens of women on the email chain went on to hit reply-all with a range of alarming reports. As Dave Gershgorn reported for Quartz last week, “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 … Another said that she had been called a ‘bitch’ at work more than once, and found it was pervasive in the company.”

Microsoft is not the first company to have its internal communications used to draw attention to allegations of bias or discrimination in the workplace. In 2017, Bloomberg reported that an email listserv called “Yes, at Google” was serving as a grassroots effort among Google employees to track and share allegations of problematic behavior. And in 2018, female employees at Nike teamed up to conduct an unofficial survey about women’s collective experiences of harassment and discrimination at the sportswear company, the results of which prompted an internal investigation and the ousters of multiple Nike executives.

The email thread at Microsoft quickly reached the senior-most leaders at the company and drew a response from chief people officer Kathleen Hogan, who also responded with encouraging language, writing, “It is very painful to hear these stories and to know that anyone is facing such behavior at Microsoft. We must do better.” Hogan also announced that Microsoft would be setting up feedback sessions the week of April 22 to follow up on the problems discussed in the email chain and would plan steps to address them.

But it’s worth noting that the email thread might not have had gained so much traction in the first place, nor gotten Microsoft’s full attention, without the first executive’s initial encouragement.

With reporting by Dave Gershgorn.

This story is part of How We’ll Win 2019, a year-long exploration of the fight for gender equality. Read more stories here.

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