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Tuesday, March 20, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Microsoft and discrimination: Where do you want to go?

Special to The Times

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As we move forward in the 21st century, no company symbolizes the progress and advancement of our society more than Microsoft, the world's largest software company.

Yet today, Microsoft is embroiled in controversies and litigation that remind us more of the failings of the last millennium than of the promise of this one.

Recently, class-action lawsuits have been filed against Microsoft alleging racial discrimination, and they include charges of bias in hiring, promotions, pay scales and wrongful terminations.

These are very serious charges, and they disappoint any who hope to see more workplace progress for all ethnic- and gender-minority groups. Since the lawsuits have been filed, they have taken on a life of their own, with vocal support for the plaintiffs coming from advocates in the African-American community nationwide.

We need to aggressively pursue every individual charge of bias and discrimination in any corporation to determine its merits and seek specific remedies. But at Microsoft, I am not convinced the claims and allegations rise to the level of a class-action suit suggesting there is a pattern of "systemic and corporately sanctioned" bias and discrimination throughout the company. In the world of corporate misdeeds in diversity, equal opportunity and racial discrimination, the category of "bad guys" has included companies such as Texaco, Avis Rent A Car, Shoney's restaurants, Denny's and, most recently, Coca-Cola and even Walt Disney.

I do not believe Microsoft should be included in this category because I do not believe the circumstances at Microsoft rise to a level that justifies a universal class-action lawsuit.

We have an obligation to all future minority employees of Microsoft and other American corporations to make sure we don't go after so many targets that we allow the true violators and offenders in this area, in short, the real "bad guys," to get away with it because their discriminatory conduct disappears from the radar screen.

In Microsoft's defense

In the Microsoft case, they can handle their own defense. Defending them is neither my responsibility nor purpose in this discussion. But this is what I do know:

• Microsoft does have a "zero-tolerance" policy in place regarding bias, discrimination and harassment.

• Microsoft has committed millions of dollars both to internal programs and commitments in the area of diversity and recruitment as well as to supporting outside community organizations designed to train new workers for the company and the industry as well.

• African-American employment at Microsoft has increased almost 80 percent since 1997. And Microsoft has invested over $100 million in outside minority community institutions to help build a stronger economic infrastructure in the urban communities of the Pacific Northwest and the nation as a whole.

More importantly, Texaco, Denny's and Coca-Cola have all made similar financial commitments in these areas. But these companies made their commitments after they were sued and either lost the cases or settled.

An important distinction

Microsoft had already committed to these expenditures voluntarily before any discrimination lawsuits were filed - again, a very important distinction between Microsoft and these other companies.

Before I am excoriated by my brethren in the African-American community, let me say that I am absolutely certain that in a company the size of Microsoft, with just under 30,000 employees in the U.S. alone, there have been individual cases of racial insensitivity and harassment, and outright discrimination.

But I am also certain that with the philosophical attitude and core beliefs of Microsoft's founders and principals, there is no way a corporate climate of "systemic sanctioned bias" and tolerance for harassment and discrimination could exist at Microsoft.

I am convinced that given the attitude of Bill Gates Jr. and Steve Balmer on this issue, there isn't a single white male at any level of management at Microsoft who could remain at the company, let alone further his career climb up the corporate ladder, if he demonstrated, either by actions or conversation, a personal attitude of bias, prejudice or insensitivity toward minority employees.

Let's go after the companies that really do deserve this spotlight and punitive response.

Can't we have a more reasoned approach to this issue? If companies like Microsoft cannot be judged as having at least made a significant effort to address diversity and equal opportunity in the workplace, then a lot of other companies that are clearly less committed than Microsoft but that might want to do something will just give up altogether, claiming the bar is too high.

Is that what we want? Will that represent progress for us? Companies like Microsoft need to be encouraged in the efforts they are currently making so they can lead the way for their more-reluctant corporate brethren.

But also let no white, rear-guard conservatives take solace in my position or attempt to use it as an argument against affirmative action or as an endorsement of everything Microsoft does.

Making real progress

I firmly support affirmative action as an important tool in American society today, and I don't want to end it, bend it, or suspend it. But before we go after the entire Microsoft corporation and exclaim "off with their heads," let's keep our heads and not destroy the excellent foundation Microsoft has established for making real progress in achieving diversity and equal opportunity in the workplace.

For years, one of Microsoft's major marketing themes has been to ask the inviting question, "Where do you want to go today?" The intent of this question is to suggest that with Microsoft, all things are possible.

It is my belief that the absolute and resolute goal of Microsoft, all the way to the very top, is to build a corporation and internal culture that not only asserts that all things are possible, but also insists that all things be equal.

Carl Jeffers is a free-lance writer, entrepreneur and franchise consultant. He is president of Intel Marketing Associates and CJS InfoConsulting. Jeffers is an occasional contributor to the opinion pages of The Times and appears on CNN's Talk Back Live. He lives in Redmond.

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