Exclusive: A Group of Microsoft Employees Is Fighting the Company’s Political Action Committee

Employees say there’s no way to dictate how the PAC spends their money, even when it conflicts with the company’s progressive values

Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images

AA group of more than 30 Microsoft employees is lobbying coworkers to stop donating to the company’s political action committee in an effort to starve the PAC of funds, multiple Microsoft workers with knowledge of the efforts told OneZero.

While Microsoft pitches itself as an inclusive and progressive company — especially during Pride Month, with tweets and donations to LGBTQ+ causes — employees who have donated to the PAC say they have no control over which candidates are being supported, meaning that they have no say when the PAC financially supports candidates whose views the employees don’t want to support. Microsoft employees who spoke to OneZero — on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals — say that the PAC doesn’t ask employees for input or supply avenues to suggest or control which candidates should be supported.

“Candidates that we dislike are those that advance policies contrary to the company’s stated policies of diversity, inclusion, and growth mindset,” one employee, who said they had persuaded about 10 others to stop donating to the PAC, told OneZero.

The PAC is a voluntary, opt-in fund that’s entirely supported by donations from more than 4,000 of Microsoft’s 140,000 employees, according to a 2015 blog post. The goal of Microsoft’s “MSPAC” is to “support and encourage the election to federal offices of persons who support the needs of business in a free and healthy economy,” according to its website. In other words, the PAC exists to extend Microsoft’s political influence and serve its business interests. It also brings prominent speakers to campus for employees who donate to MSPAC, and occasionally opens those events up to nondonors.

As is the case with many tech companies, Microsoft also separately lobbies politicians, though at nearly 10 times the scale of the employee-driven PAC, according to OpenSecrets.

MSPAC is run by Kelly Eaton, a Microsoft employee who previously worked at Hewlett-Packard Enterprise’s PAC, according to her profile on LinkedIn.

“I find the whole thing to be corrupt… As we begin our new fiscal year next month, we will launch new advisory councils to help inform these decisions.”

“Contribution decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and take into consideration a number of factors including the interests of our employees, and alignment with our public policy agenda,” a Microsoft spokesperson told OneZero after we reached out to Eaton about the PAC. “As we begin our new fiscal year next month, we will launch new advisory councils to help inform these decisions.”

The spokesperson wasn’t able to add more information about who would be on those councils, however.

”I find the whole thing to be corrupt,” another longtime Microsoft employee told OneZero. “How can Microsoft be pro-diversity and inclusion and still give money to Mitch McConnell? That makes zero sense to me.”

MSPAC did indeed donate $10,000 to the Republican Senate Majority Leader for his upcoming reelection bid. Since 1998, Microsoft workers have given a total of $39,000 to McConnell through the PAC, according to federal lobbying records analyzed by OneZero. This isn’t a huge amount compared to some of McConnell’s other fundraising efforts. The Kentucky senator received more than $225,000 from the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm, in the last five years alone, and more than $26 million in total.

McConnell is also far from the top recipient of MSPAC funds. MSPAC has given Washington Congressman Adam Smith, a Democrat, $105,000 since 1998 — an average of more than $5,000 a year. While McConnell is the Senate’s top Republican, Smith is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, where last year he appointed Microsoft technical fellow Eric Horvitz to serve on the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. (Horvitz has never donated to the PAC, according to 20 years of FEC data.)

The political contributions of MSPAC have typically been a fairly even 50/50 split along Democratic and Republican party lines, according to OpenSecrets, a website built by the Center for Responsive Politics to track political lobbying. The one exception is the 2016 election cycle, when the MSPAC gave nearly $625,000 to Republican congressional candidates, almost twice as much as it did to Democrats, according to OpenSecrets.

Six of the top 10 recipients of MSPAC money over the last 20 years have been Republicans, including former House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte. Current House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, is also on the list of recipients, but has received only $34,000, a bulk of it before his ascension to chairman.

Goodlatte has sponsored bills that would have a direct impact on Microsoft’s business, including the Innovation Act of 2015, which the company said at the time would “provide new tools to deter abuses of the patent litigation system while protecting the value of patents and our innovation economy. “ Microsoft has 53,000 patents issued in the U.S. and internationally, according to its last annual financial disclosure with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and has another 29,000 patents pending.

MSPAC money is primarily spent supporting the campaigns of federal and state politicians, according to OpenSecrets. But funds are also used to bring speakers to campus. Previous speakers have included Hillary Clinton, Republican Senator Marco Rubio, U.S. Digital Service head Matt Cutts, and former KGB spy Jack Barsky. A past job listing for an MSPAC coordinator suggested up to 40 speakers come to the Microsoft campus to speak to MSPAC members per year.

Employees feel there is little recourse to shape how funds are used and worry how the donations reflect on those who don’t contribute to the fund. One Microsoft employee who previously donated to MSPAC said that he had never been asked for input on which candidates MSPAC should support.

“The company needs to lobby to the government,” the employee said. “But don’t ask employees for money. And if you do, ask how to spend it. That’s not the case [with MSPAC].”

The employee further said that it felt duplicitous for Microsoft’s leaders to speak the language of progressive social causes — one corporate webpage cites the “transformative power of diversity and inclusion” — and then oversee an employee-funded PAC where roughly 50% of the money would go to conservative candidates who often oppose those same measures on a federal level.

One Microsoft employee who previously donated to MSPAC said that he had never been asked for input on which candidates MSPAC should support.

A group of employees tweeting from an account called Microsoft Workers 4 Good, independently verified by OneZero to represent Microsoft employees, tweeted earlier this year that the process of spending PAC money is opaque.

“There is no input from employees on where this money goes,” the workers wrote. “All decisions are made by a board, their elections are not open company-wide.“

The Microsoft workers also wrote that the PAC has the ability to send company-wide emails to advertise joining the PAC and the events that it puts on, something that other employee-run groups for black, disabled, or LGBTQ+ employees don’t have the capability to do. The PAC has also been discussed internally by employees on multiple threads on Yammer, the company’s internal social network, according to a Microsoft staffer reached by OneZero and publicly available tweets.

Microsoft is far from the only technology company with a political action committee. Google and Amazon both have large PACs, each of which has donated more than $1 million each to federal candidates in 2018. Facebook’s PAC donated more than $450,000. Like Microsoft, these other tech companies tend to split money evenly between Democratic and Republican candidates.

As the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer notes, some of Microsoft’s money flows to congresspeople who are overseeing antitrust investigations — including 15 Democrats on the antitrust subcommittee.

The tension between these vocal Microsoft employees and MSPAC is indicative of the growing pressure — often internal — for tech companies to prioritize social responsibility alongside traditional fiduciary responsibility to their investors. While the number of Microsoft employees actively speaking out against the PAC is far from a majority, their worries show that technology workers are increasingly comfortable publicly speaking out against the political dealings of their companies. Concerns with systemic harassment and climate have led workers at Google and Amazon to even organize internally.

“MSPAC is antithetical to everything I love about @Microsoft’s culture and values,” one Microsoft employee wrote on Twitter. “Knowing that this organization supports politicians who are actively attempting to subvert our democracy is infuriating.”

Senior Writer at OneZero covering surveillance, facial recognition, DIY tech, and artificial intelligence. Previously: Qz, PopSci, and NYTimes.

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