The Redmond-based company faces allegations of gender discrimination.
The Redmond-based company faces allegations of gender discrimination. WELLESENTERPRISES/GETTY

Microsoft today became the first company to say it will stop using forced arbitration agreements when employees file claims about sexual harassment. Those agreements require employees who claim their rights were violated to go through arbitration with the company, away from public scrutiny, instead of through the courts. The Redmond-based tech company is also supporting a Senate proposal to ban the agreements.

From the New York Times:

The moves make Microsoft an early company — and certainly the most prominent — to take such steps to end legal agreements that have been criticized for helping to perpetuate sexual abuse in the workplace. Forced arbitration lets companies keep harassment and discrimination claims out of court, effectively cloaking them from public view and, in some cases, allowing serial harassers to continue their conduct for years.

“The silencing of people’s voices has clearly had an impact in perpetuating sexual harassment,” Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, said in a phone interview.

Microsoft’s action shows how the flood of harassment accusations has gone beyond individual cases to an examination of policy changes for ending the misconduct. That includes greater scrutiny of legal settlements that have silenced victims of abuse.

The Times reports that the move is "largely symbolic" because only a small portion of Microsoft's workers were subject to the agreements.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, 55 percent of workers are now subject to mandatory arbitration. The group says that has "weakened the position of workers whose rights are violated" by limiting their ability to take claims to court.

The move comes as Microsoft faces a years-long lawsuit claiming the company discriminated against women who worked in technical and engineering roles at the company. Lawyers in the case are seeking class action status as well as court orders requiring Microsoft to change the way it evaluates performance and determines pay.

Documents recently unsealed in the case exposed new allegations. As Bloomberg first reported, a woman who interned for the company in Redmond said she was sexually assaulted by another intern after going out for drinks with colleagues in Capitol Hill.

According to the documents, she filed a police report and reported the incident to the company. However, she was required to keep working with the male intern. And later, the company hired both the woman and the man she said raped her. Microsoft told Bloomberg it took the allegation seriously and offered her resources. Read more about the case here.