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Microsoft ends arbitration in sexual harassment cases

Enlarge/ Microsoft's Brad Smith addresses shareholders ..

Enlarge/ Microsoft's Brad Smith addresses shareholders during Microsoft Shareholders Meeting December 3, 2014 in Bellevue, Washington.Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

This week Microsoft has altered a longstanding corporate policy, eliminating forced arbitration agreements for employees who file claims of sexual harassment—it is believed to be the largest such tech firm to make this notable change.

"The silencing of people’s voices has clearly had an impact in perpetuating sexual harassment," Brad Smith, Microsoft's president and chief legal officer, told The New York Times on Tuesday. In a blog post, Smith also said that the company would support new federal legislation to end the use of arbitration in sexual harassment cases.

Like other industries in recent months, Silicon Valley has come to reckon with abuse amongst some of its most prominent corporations and people in an entirely new way. Some individuals who have been ousted this past year for alleged sexual misconduct include Shervin Pishevar, Robert Scoble, and Steve Jurvetson, among others.

Just last week, Bloomberg reported on previously sealed court filings brought by a former Microsoft intern that stated she was raped by a fellow intern who was later hired at the company.

Microsoft's move to eliminate arbitration in such cases was applauded by some high-profile Silicon Valley leaders.

Kudos @Microsoft. Ending forced arbitration on sexual harassment claims is a small step forward. Lots more to do for fair & safe workplaces

— Ellen K. Pao (@ekp) December 19, 2017

Bravo, @Microsoft and @satyanadella! Microsoft has eliminated forced arbitration agreements with employees who make sexual harassment claims, supports proposed federal law to ban them. A win for #MeTooWhatNext

— Nilofer Merchant (@nilofer) December 19, 2017


Arbitration is a private, quasi-legal procedure originally designed to expedite disputes between corporations. But over time, it has evolved into a system where individuals are compelled for a variety of reasons to agree to arbitration decisions versus seeking a court decision. The net result is that disputes that normally would have been adjudicated via the public court process are often processed via private arbitration, which generally favors corporations over individuals.

Worse still, in the world of arbitration, there is no possibility of class-action claims. Arbitration proceedings are additionally often shrouded from public view, meaning it is traditionally difficult to find out about sexual harassment or misconduct claims at corporations.

As the Times noted, the move at Microsoft is "largely symbolic because only a minority of Microsoft workers—numbering in the hundreds in its senior ranks, according to Mr. Smith—have been subject to the requirement. Microsoft will still require those employees to take claims unrelated to harassment and gender discrimination to arbitration. In total, Microsoft has about 125,000 employees around the world."

Ars has contacted Uber, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, and Twitter to see if they would consider making a similar move. We will update this post if we hear back.

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