Challenging corporate neutrality

The Microsoft case questions the notion that business should stay out of social issues.

Traditionally, corporations remain publicly neutral on controversial political debates about social issues. But when they do take a side, employees and consumers expect them to stick to their commitments. Otherwise, the corporations can expect a backlash that will hurt their bottom line and image.

Microsoft learned that lesson last month when it was inundated with angry e-mails, blog rants and other chastising from gay-rights advocates after Microsoft revealed it had withdrawn support from a gay-rights bill in Washington state.

The bill would have widened discrimination protections in housing and employment, among other areas, for gays and lesbians. Corporations such as Molson Coors Brewing Co., Boeing Co. and Nike Inc. supported the legislation, which was defeated by one vote in the Washington Senate.

Microsoft has had a good track record on gay rights and was an early supporter of domestic-partner benefits; it requires vendors to follow its internal anti-discrimination policies. But reports that Microsoft withdrew support because of boycott threats from a local evangelical church have threatened to erode that reputation.

The Microsoft case is an interesting one, because it challenges the notion businesses should remain neutral on certain political issues. This viewpoint, however, asserts the belief that the only goal of business is to make money, and to do this, it must avoid controversy. This idea, that businesses should remain neutral on political issues, when they typically fund the campaigns to get politicians elected, is faulty.

Public silence on the issues while funding political campaigns is tantamount to providing matches to an arsonist and then claiming you have no opinion on the fires being set.

Just as politicians are typically held accountable for their views, corporations must be as well. Granted, this opens up more than a few cans of worms, but it introduces a corporate responsibility on par with the politicians they fund. There isn’t any real chance of this happening anytime soon, but conscientious consumers are beginning to realize corporations can no longer wash their hands of the realities around them.