To Ballmer's credit, he did address the issue. He also mentioned that he and Gates are firmly in support of the law. As I suggested here some time ago, Gates' influence in the company might be waning as the company has become a mature (read: old guard) publicly traded entity. Ballmer seems to support that portrayal in the following statement:
It's appropriate to invoke the company's name on issues of public policy that directly affect our business and our shareholders, but it's much less clear when it's appropriate to invoke the company's name on broader issues that go far beyond the software industry — and on which our employees and shareholders hold widely divergent opinions. We are a public corporation with a duty first and foremost to a broad group of shareholders.
Hm, other companies are publicly traded and they take a stance on this issue. Companies like Washington Mutual and Ford Motor Company have both taken stances in favor of such laws. To my mind, it just goes to show the cowardice of the current executives at Microsoft. Rather than be a leader in civil rights, they choose to take a stance to appear to be inoffensive. It's a very old guard, conservative approach, but by removing support for a bill they have previously supported 2 year's running, they have inadvertently taken a stance which has taken many by surprise. Indeed, what has blind sided Microsoft executives is that they never realized that the current stance would be considered very offensive by employees, shareholders, and consumers (such as myself).
To add to their cowardice, Steve Ballmer tries to lay part of the blame on the laps of employees - not just shareholders. To wit, he writes:
I am also adamant that I want Microsoft to be a place where every employee feels respected, and where every employee feels like they belong. I don't want the company to be in the position of appearing to dismiss the deeply-held beliefs of any employee, by picking sides on social policy issues.
In other words, some employees disagree with equal rights for homosexuals, therefore Microsoft doesn't want to take a stand for laws that would ensure this - therefore making the bigots feel uncomfortable working for Microsoft. This makes so little sense in so many ways that it's hard to fathom that his publicity group let this one slide through. This is a shining example of the sort of rhetoric that gets created when a company or individual attempts to back away from an arguably very moral stance and slides into political correctness (remember - political correctness cuts both left and right, Steve...I'll let your publicists inform you about which way you let your company slip this time in the name of unnamed "shareholders" and "employees").
Update: Slashdot has a discussion going on about this right now. One person asks if companies should be involved at all in social issues (as Ballmer suggests in his original mail, this may not be something that Microsoft wants to involve itself in). Companies are involved in social issues all the time. You don't think that copyright laws have an effect on society? Ask the people who have been prosecuted by the RIAA? You don't think that tax breaks for corporations have an effect on society? Then how do you think the government is going to run and who is going to have to pick up the burden for lower corporate taxes that have fallen from 60% of the government budget in the 1950s to 19% today (answer - the middle class)? How about corporate polluters? Are their concerns social issues? What about oil policy - does it have any social effect? Health care costs are rising at phenomenal rates for corporations, so they are cutting back on the generosity of the benefits they offer (including Microsoft), what impact on society do you think this is having and how do you think corporations are trying to lobby our government to do something about it?
Sorry, folks, the social issue argument brought up by people on Slashdot and by Ballmer is a straw man argument. Corporations are involved in social issues both directly and indirectly. To pretend that they are not is to either participate in willful ignorance or stupidity. Such involvement cuts both left and right in the political world and sometimes it harms both sides, but it is never neutral in the sense that it harms no one. Corporations like to note in court that, under the law, they are classified as citizens. They like to tell their shareholders of their leadership roles as citizens in lobbying for legislation that benefits their bottom lines. Microsoft learned in recent years (via the antitrust suits) that it had to be an active citizen in order to protect itself and it's stockholders. Once it became active, it also became a leader by pushing equal rights initiatives for homosexuals in the Washington state legislature. Now Microsoft wants to shy away from it's leadership position and no longer engage for a better world that seeks equal protection for all of it's citizens all because it doesn't want to engage in social issues that it professes to champion internally? That doesn't sound like a leader in citizenship to me.