A Year After an HR Crisis, Microsoft Employees Say They’re Still Waiting for Change

Two former employees say that a lack of HR action was a primary reason for leaving the company

On March 20, 2019, a Microsoft employee who had been at the company for three years sent an email to a collection of listservs for women at the company, asking how to move up in the organization. She had worked for years without a promotion, and said that her career had been limited because she was a woman. It was a spark to a tinderbox.

In the next few days, dozens and dozens of other women replied to the message, each sharing frustration and stories of discrimination and harassment at the company. Some said they had been subject to overt abuse, like being called a “bitch” during business functions, and others said they had been sexually harassed with no ramifications to the harassers. Microsoft’s top executives, including CEO Satya Nadella and top Human Resources (HR) exec Kathleen Hogan, were quickly CC’d on the chain.

“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,” a Microsoft employee wrote in the email chain at the time.

On April 15, 2019, Nadella responded with an email to the entire company, promising reforms to HR that would better serve employees, as well as an annual transparency report that would tell employees how many cases were investigated and how they were resolved.

More than a year later, Microsoft employees say that they haven’t seen the report the company promised.

In the days leading up to the publication of this article, OneZero reached out to Microsoft asking about this transparency report. The company responded to other questions, but did not comment on the status of this report.

After OneZero published this story, a Microsoft spokesperson said that the company had in fact built an internal website that gives company-wide data on investigations. The spokesperson did not offer more information, and Microsoft employees who spoke to OneZero about incidents at the company said they had not heard of this website.

“Regarding commitments to increase transparency, the company has provided the data it committed to reporting annually to employees in the form of an internal site with company-wide information about the types of concerns being raised and investigation outcomes,” the spokesperson said in a written statement.

It’s unclear how things have changed for employees who have faced discrimination and harassment at Microsoft. Five former and current employees who have interacted with Microsoft’s human resources department in the last year say there hasn’t been a noticeable difference in the way cases have been handled since last March. Two of the former employees left the company during the last year, and told OneZero that a lack of HR action was a primary reason for leaving.

The Microsoft spokesperson told OneZero that the company has hit its internal goals for addressing discrimination and harassment at the company, and that a majority of investigations are now concluded in 30 calendar days. The spokesperson said Microsoft has hired a new Global Employee Relations team to guide employees through HR investigations, created a website that allows employees to track details and updates on their investigation, and provided new manager training and expectations.

“Even if we never speak, I work neutrally behind the scenes maintaining a consistent focus on empowering everyone involved to recover after an investigation — no matter the outcome.”

Tech companies are facing a new wave of scrutiny from employees who demand that progressive corporate values translate into equitable working environments. The 2018 Google Walkout, also sparked by a female-led email chain, demanded a transparency report giving data on harassment claims and an end to mandatory arbitration, a legal tactic that forces employment disputes to be handled internally rather than in a public lawsuit. Employee activism has extended to Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft since then.

Internally, Microsoft has long battled accusations that its HR department does an insufficient job handling harassment and discrimination cases for its 150,000 employees worldwide. A 2015 class-action lawsuit alleged that the company routinely discriminated against female employees. The lawsuit also revealed that Microsoft had received 238 complaints from female employees from 2010 to 2016, with 118 of the complaints pertaining to discrimination. The company only found one of those 118 complaints to be legitimate.

Microsoft tried to reassure employees that it was taking an active role in weeding out discrimination in a 2018 email to employees, saying that it had also fired about 20 people in 2017 due to sexual harassment claims.

But outside of the lawsuit and the 2018 email, employees tell OneZero that it’s difficult to get a complete picture of how effective the company’s HR efforts are. That’s why employees asked for greater transparency around HR decisions in the wake of the March and April 2019 email chain.

In response to the stories shared of harassment and discrimination, Microsoft created the “Global Employee Relations” team — originally dubbed the “Employee Advocacy Team” — in order to help guide employees through the HR investigation process.

OneZero reviewed an email sent by a member of this new team to an employee who was recently involved in an HR dispute. The Global Employee Relations representative introduced themselves as part of a new team, and offered their support and “compassionate neutral assistance,” according to the email.

“Even if we never speak, I work neutrally behind the scenes maintaining a consistent focus on empowering everyone involved to recover after an investigation — no matter the outcome,” they wrote.

But other current and recently departed employees who have been in contact with HR for ongoing disputes told OneZero they had never heard from the team, and were not even aware that it existed.

A former employee, who left the company in 2020 after their complaint of harassment and bullying had not been resolved for more than a year, said the company’s promises never resulted in any tangible changes.

“I know, when you have 150k employees, it’s hard to make sure everybody’s perfect. But then I emailed Kathleen [Hogan] herself. I gave (or begged even) her the chance to practice what she preaches,” the former employee wrote to OneZero. “She didn’t even bother writing back to me.”

Employees still say they have not seen the transparency report promised by Nadella in the spring of 2019, nor have they seen the internal website mentioned by the Microsoft spokesperson.

“I thought they had promised us some transparency on the data,” one employee told OneZero.

Immediately after the email chain in 2019, Hogan shared some early statistics about renewed investigations at an employee town hall, according to an employee who listened in to the meeting. Hogan allegedly said that of 200 cases opened, 15 were substantiated and most were misunderstandings.

“It was like, “Really? Only 200 cases were opened?” the employee said. “Because we could all think of several people who had opened cases.”

Employees claim that during investigations they are left in the dark for weeks at a time, and when decisions are made, that they favor managers over workers.

While Nadella promised in April that the median length of investigations would be less than a month, those who spoke to OneZero haven’t seen evidence of a change. Microsoft claims to have met its stated goal.

Another former employee who left the company in December 2019 said they only left because they couldn’t handle their situation anymore, and HR didn’t help them resolve it.

“I wasn’t confident things were going to change and I didn’t want to continue working at a place that refused to create an inclusive environment,” they said.

Update: This piece has been updated to correct the date when the class action lawsuit against Microsoft was initially filed.This article has also been updated to include a statement from a Microsoft spokesperson asserting that the company had published a transparency report on an internal website. The story’s headline has also been updated to reflect new developments.

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

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