With celebrity #MeToo complaints going back 30 years, and Bill Cosby being tried for an assault 14 years ago, managers may be wondering how far back can victims of harassment in the workplace go. Microsoft Corporation is in the process of finding out.
Microsoft was sued in a class action gender discrimination suit in 2015. In March, 2018, motions and evidence were unsealed by the federal court. Among them were documents showing that the women at Microsoft who work in technical jobs filed 238 internal complaints from 2010 through 2016. These included 108 complaints of sexual harassment, 119 of gender discrimination, eight for retaliation, and three for pregnancy discrimination.
Out of the 238 complaints, Microsoft’s internal investigations conducted by its Employee Relations Investigations Team (ERIT) found that only one was valid.
As noted by the plaintiffs’ attorney, “In fact, ERIT often concludes there is no policy violation even when all the evidence points to the contrary. For example, four female employees raised separate complaints of sexual harassment against a male employee at a Microsoft event, yet ERIT found no policy violation despite concluding that the accused harasser touched all four women in a manner that made them feel uncomfortable.”
In addition, according to the plaintiff’s filings, the ERIT team, which operates from the Redmond headquarters, had no policies or procedures on how to conduct investigations. But, Microsoft says that all internal investigators are licensed attorneys, with years of investigation experience and training.
In a open letter to all 65,000 Microsoft employees, written in response to the unsealing of the court documents, the company’s Chief People Officer said that in the last fiscal year, MS received 83 sexual harassment complaints, of which nearly 50% were found to be supported in part or in full following the investigation, and more than half of these resulted in termination of an employee who engaged in unacceptable behavior.
What will happen to Microsoft remains to be seen. But there are lessons here for all employers.
What this means to you: Employers need to determine if harassment occurred in the past that was not handled appropriately. They may have not found violations, ignored gossip about harassment, discouraged complaints, or given a wrist-slap where termination was in order.
If so, employers need to work with their attorneys to revisit past actions and make amends. If gossip was ignored or complaints discouraged, investigations may now be warranted. Though employers are understandably reluctant to dig up old problems, a proactive approach is more likely to result in an amicable settlement than reacting after a complaint is filed. And remember: there is no statute of limitations for trial by internet.
Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.