Posters with the address of a mosque and the directive "Come Convert to Islam" hung for a month on community bulletin boards in several buildings' kitchenettes on Microsoft's Redmond campus before being discreetly removed last week, along with all other religious announcements on the boards. On Friday, big yellow signs appeared reminding employees of the company's policy on postings: Bulletin boards are free for employees, but if managers deem any fliers inappropriate they will be removed.
The issue of what is appropriate and what is offensive is a sensitive subject for Microsoft, which takes great pains to be an inclusive workplace. Employees undergo mandatory diversity training, including video scenarios of actors accidentally offending each other's race, religion, or ethnicity ("That Indian food smells like garbage!"), and the company hosts more than 30 employee-formed diversity advisory councils. If office dwellers are made uncomfortable, there are well-marked official channels for complaints. "They are so, so, so afraid of getting sued, they go way out of their way to make sure that if you do feel offended you have a way of expressing it," says one employee. "And if there's some issue, [the company] will side with whoever feels offended." Microsoft has a strong incentive to create an inclusive environment after the corporation experienced a vocal and damaging backlash from employees last year when it pulled support (and then quickly renewed support) for a gay-rights bill ["Microsoft Caves on Gay Rights," Sandeep Kaushik, April 21, 2005].
In the case of the Islamic advertisements, employees knew how and where to complain, but were stuck not wanting to fess up to possible political incorrectness.
"Because they're fierce about being diverse in every possible way, employees wouldn't go broadcasting their distaste with Muslim recruitment posters," says an employee.
For weeks, discussions about the signs were just water-cooler whispers. "We shouldn't feel too offended or too shocked by it, if there's a peaceful group or a peaceful mosque," says one employee. "The only alerting thing about it is the converting message." There were also posters for Mormon and Christian groups on the boards, but only the Muslim one bore a direct conversion request.
The posters' call for conversion is bizarre, says Rita Zawaideh of the Arab American Community Coalition, who explains that Muslims do not actively seek converts and suggested the signs were a joke.
Serious or not, employees say they were nervous about throwing the signs away, in case it offended whoever posted them. "Will we have desecrated something for them?" an employee wondered.