Image: A protest against police brutality following the murder of George Floyd, and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Employees at Microsoft are asking the company end its contracts with law enforcement agencies.
Conventional wisdom dictates that during times of high unemployment and economic chaos, employees should just keep their heads down, avoid ruffling any feathers and stay on task. Well, tell that to a group of employees at Microsoft.
According to OneZero reporter Dave Gershgorn, at least 250 Microsoft employees ended up copied on an email early in the morning on June 8. The note urged the company’s top executives, notably CEO Satya Nadella and executive vice president, Kurt DelBene, to sever any and all contracts with the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and other law enforcement agencies.
This wasn’t a rant from a few “woke” employees. In fact, the email summed up what these individuals experienced firsthand over the past two weeks. “Every one of us in the CC line are either firsthand witnesses or direct victims to the inhumane responses of SPD to peaceful protesting,” the employees wrote.
Gershgorn said the email at first only copied 20 employees, but as it ricocheted across the company, the number of employees who saw it increased more than ten-fold, which of course then led to it becoming published on OneZero and other technology news sites such as Engadget.
The email asked the company to follow through on several requests from employees, starting with the cancelation of any and all contracts with law enforcement agencies; public support for the Black Lives Matter movement in Seattle; a formal rebuke of the use of tear gas, flash bangs and rubber bullets; and a public call for the resignation of Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who has come under fire for her perceived role in the city’s response to protests that occurred in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.
These demands have surely sent a chill up the spines of some of the company’s executives, board members and investors. Contracts with federal law enforcement agencies alone can ratchet up to the hundreds of billions of dollars. But for this group of Microsoft employees, this gravy train is one they believe they should pass on.
Microsoft has struggled with other leaked emails, including one from Seattle artist Shantell Martin. Posting a screenshot on Twitter over the weekend, Martin showed how an advertising firm representing Microsoft asked her to rush a mural the company had commissioned, with the logic that it needed to be completed by Sunday, June 7, “while the protests are still relevant and the boards are still up.”
Judging by the fact that protests over Floyd’s death are still ongoing, an eye on the news cycle is in the least bad optics — and a subsequent apology from Microsoft over the “insensitive language” comes across as effective as trying to shove toothpaste back into the tube.
Microsoft is among the many companies that have publicly supported the Black Lives Matter movement with words and funds. As anyone who plays dominoes knows, however, it only takes one poorly drawn tile to block progress. And on top of a group of upset employees who are now pushing for action, Microsoft risks a flurry of falling dominoes, as in poorly timed responses, which could dent its reputation.
Other tech companies have had to contend with employees upset at their employer’s technology being weaponized for what they see as immoral reasons. Last year, Palantir employees spoke out against the company’s technology contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Last week, some employees at Facebook walked out to protest the company’s hands-off approach toward the U.S. president’s violence-baiting posts.
Microsoft has done the easy part: Any company can write words and draft checks in a show of support. The hard part is actually following through and backing such support with action. No amount of word-smithing, however, will help Microsoft’s C-suite slip away cleanly from this dilemma.
Image credit: SounderBruce/Wiki Commons
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.