In the heat of the Silicon Valley sexual discrimination PR crisis accusers and victims began compiling lists of individuals who were serial harassers and companies that were reputed to foster environments that allowed or ignored harassment or gender discrimination. As the list of big names grew, eventually, Microsoft was added.
Microsoft vociferously denied the allegations, yet they continued to pour in. Eventually, court cases topped 100 counts of gender discrimination. The cases continued to wind through the legal process, and Microsoft took a beating in the press and on social media, even as the company was working to refit its image from a desktop hardware provider to an industry innovator in the digital age of tablets and cloud computing.
The complaints were lodged by female employees who worked in tech jobs at the company between 2010 and 2016. As the complaints came in, Microsoft conducted an internal investigation. Now, the Associated Press is reporting that Microsoft has announced finding only one case out of the 118 to have substantive reason for the allegations.
As these findings have been released to the media, Microsoft has also come out and fundamentally denied any systemic bias in the company. They argue their employee-review process is fair and not tainted by gender bias.
As Microsoft draws its lines and makes its denials, the lawsuits continue. Plaintiffs in the gender discrimination suit want class-action status, claiming that more than 8,000 women lost out on hundreds of millions in pay due to their gender. That status has yet to be granted, and Microsoft continues to vigorously deny any large-scale discrimination ever took place.
Regardless of the facts of the case, which have yet to be made public, the allegations leave an impression. Several other top tech executives have left jobs or been in the headlines over gender issues or harassment, and more than a few high-profile companies in the tech sector have admitted issues in their culture. That leaves a consumer public more apt to believe the allegations than the defense, even before the facts are known. So, as Microsoft is defending its legal rights in court, the company still has to protect its brand in the marketplace.
This fact is also a warning to all tech sector companies to be careful about having their own good name tarnished by an overarching impression about the industry as a whole being a “boy’s club.” Consumers have an impression, bolstered by proven or admitted claims, and this impression puts brands in the position of having to protect themselves from guilt by association.
Ronn Torossian is the CEO and Founder of 5W Public Relations.