It has been a torrid couple of weeks for Microsoft, with Quartz at Work reporting on 4 April that senior leaders have been forced to look into scores of sexual harassment claims that the firm’s HR department has allegedly neglected. 
The crisis stemmed from a 20 March email in which a stuck-in-a-rut female worker at Microsoft’s Datacenter asked a large number of her female colleagues for some career-advancement tips. Her email quickly snowballed into a chain equivalent to 90 A4 pages in length, in which numerous Microsoft women recounted personal experiences of sexual discrimination and bullying.
One worker wrote: “As a Microsoft Partner, [I] was asked to sit on someone’s lap twice in one meeting in front of HR and other executives. I can assure you that nothing was done. I alone objected and cited Microsoft policy. The person said that he did not have to listen and repeated the request a second time. No one said anything.”
That is one of the chain’s milder contributions.
As the painful messages built up, one worker added: “This thread has pulled the scab off a festering wound. The collective anger and frustration is palpable. A wide audience is now listening. And you know what? I’m good with that.”
In the aftermath, leaders temporarily deleted the Women at Microsoft employee network’s internal messaging account, further inflaming the situation.
However, in an 11 April continuation of its story,  Quartz noted that buried near the top of the emails was a sympathetic message from a female executive, who had replied to the chain’s initiator: “I was disappointed to read your email and hear that you have not had a good experience. I am going to set up time with you to follow up and learn more. I don’t want anyone in my organisation, Microsoft, or frankly anywhere to feel this way. I know we have a lot more to do with respect to career planning for Datacenter technicians and as a result recently launched the Career hub.”
She added: “My team is working on how to communicate this more effectively and broadly so everyone knows what resources are available. We are also in the process of training our Datacenter managers to be better positioned to lead, coach and mentor. I want you to know you have my support … Will be in touch shortly.”
What does the tone of this message say about how to be a better leader when it comes to listening to staff – in contrast to the numerous HR dead ends that Microsoft’s harassment accusers have run into?
Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “I recently spoke to a young woman who detailed, in a similar way to some of these Microsoft employees, how unenlightened her workplace was – and how sexism appeared not only to exist, but to thrive, in that particular environment.
“It really brought home to me that I, and others in my field, have been campaigning for decades to stop this type of behaviour. But over and over again, we find ourselves circling back to a scenario in which an individual woman complains about the treatment she has received and, as a result, the problem becomes located at more of an individual level than an organisational one.”
Cooper stresses: “The female executive who wrote that absolutely appropriate reply provided an example of what we want everyone, in every organisation, to be saying. If workers feel that certain behaviours that are part of their daily lives are sexist, homophobic, racist or discriminatory towards the disabled, then the organisation has to respond to it.”
She adds: “People need to feel cared about at work; to be taken seriously. Whatever their worries, they should be listened to sympathetically. In cases where employees flag up broader, cultural concerns with attitudes and behaviours that are particularly prevalent, it is up to senior management to treat that information with the required level of seriousness.
“That must also hold true in the middle ranks: if one of your team members has a problem then, as their line manager, it’s your problem, too. In the final analysis, failing to take up a grievance or upset on behalf of someone who works for you is simply unprofessional.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on dealing with conflict
Image of Microsoft Silicon Valley building courtesy of Sundry Photography, via Shutterstock