Brian Bailey Preface to the Revised Edition

Scoble, Microsoft, and Politics

There is substantial debate about a recent decision by Microsoft to stay neutral on a state anti-discrimination (specifically sexual orientation) bill. The arguments have focused primarily on whether it is appropriate for a corporation to take a stand on controversial issues not directly tied to its industry.

Robert Scoble strongly opposed Microsoft's decision and wrote about his disappointment.

I believe that a CEO SHOULD take a position on controversial and divisive issues. That's leadership. Here, let's take it back to software. Are you saying that all employees should vote on the feature set of Longhorn?

Our leaders are paid a lot of money to take stances on tough issues.

Dave Winer, came down on the opposite side:

People should be able to use Microsoft products without having to support political causes they don't.

This is a great question that I've thought about for a long time. Apple, for instance, is commonly identified as a fairly liberal company, including Steve Jobs' work for John Kerry and Al Gore's position on the Board of Directors. Similarly, Michael Dell has been a strong supporter of Republican candidates. Are there individuals or companies who take this into account when making purchase decisions? Is Apple or Dell risking losing customers by not remaining entirely neutral? Are there conservatives or Christians that avoid Whole Foods or Ben & Jerry's?

My take is there is indeed a very small percentage of the population that will make commerce decisions based on politics, but the effect is negligible because an equally small percentage is more loyal and enthusiastic about the company or product for the same reason.

Let me add that I respect Scoble for standing firm for his beliefs, at some risk to his own position and influence. He mentions a number of Christians and conservatives who serve with him and in leadership positions. I'd be curious how many would have spoken out as strongly if the decision had gone the opposite way.

Also, I respect him for being consistent in his support for openness and debate. We had a hypothetical conversation at SXSW about a situation where personal blogs revealed that an organization was dominated by one political view, even though it was completely unrelated to the organization's product or service. He gave three reasons why corporate transparency is a good thing:

First, perhaps the process will wake up the company to its lack of opinion diversity. Second, customers or users will discover this eventually anyway. Third, only a small percentage of people are going to avoid a product or service because of the religious or political views of the leadership.

Lastly, despite the harsh things he wrote about the role of religion in politics, let me say personally that Scoble has been consistently kind and generous to me and my church, despite our differing views. In fact, he has spoken highly of and defended Fellowship in various forums.

My personal view? Corporations take stands every day, through internal policies, lobbyists, actions by leadership, and contributions to causes, charities, and political campaigns. Rarely are these actions this public, but they are certainly not going to go away. The leadership of each company has to make the call of where that line is, and what cause or belief is worth risking a backlash from customers and the press. If the employees, shareholders, or customers believe it has gone too far in one direction or another, there will be a negative impact on the company and an incentive to change.