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Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith. (GeekWire File Photo)

Microsoft is throwing its support behind a bill that would prevent employers from requiring arbitration for sexual harassment claims, saying it’s the first Fortune 100 company to back the bipartisan effort to ensure that companies aren’t able to keep such allegations from becoming public.

The tech giant says it’s also waiving its own arbitration requirements for harassment claims in the “small segment” of Microsoft employment contracts that contain them. Microsoft says it has never enforced an arbitration requirement in a sexual harassment case. However, the requirement does exist in employment contracts with some Microsoft corporate vice presidents, legal and corporate affairs employees, and company founders who joined Microsoft through acquisitions.

Just last week, a trove of internal Microsoft documents, involving harassment and assault claims inside the company, were reported by Bloomberg after they were unsealed in a class action lawsuit against the company. The fact that arbitration agreements aren’t standard at Microsoft contributed to the rare public release of such documents, Bloomberg reported.

Brad Smith, Microsoft president and chief legal officer, makes it clear in a post that the company’s consideration of the bill predates the Bloomberg report, saying Microsoft has been learning about the bill over “the past couple of weeks.”

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) introduced the “Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act of 2017” this month to “void forced arbitration agreements that prevent sexual harassment survivors from getting the justice they deserve.”

“When I recently met with Senator Graham on Capitol Hill to discuss cybersecurity and immigration issues, he followed those topics with a compelling appeal that we consider this new legislation,” Smith writes.

The impact of arbitration agreements has become more clear amid the wave of sexual harassment and assault allegations against prominent men in media, technology and government. These “pre-dispute arbitration clauses” prevent employees from suing companies in court, and the resulting settlements often include non-disclosure agreements that prevent victims from talking about their cases.

Here’s the explanation from Smith about the company’s decision to support the bill:

We appreciate that many companies and business associations believe that the opportunity for private arbitration is sufficient. A great many responsible companies – Microsoft among them – have put in place a variety of internal processes so employees can escalate concerns. Arbitration alone has seemed reasonable to supplement these processes, and for most issues that seems appropriate.

But as each new story about sexual harassment demonstrates, current approaches in this area have proven insufficient. Even as we look squarely at the sins of the past, we must take stronger steps to prevent these problems in the future. Because the silencing of voices has helped perpetuate sexual harassment, the country should guarantee that people can go to court to ensure these concerns can always be heard.

We concluded that if we were to advocate for legislation ending arbitration requirements for sexual harassment, we should not have a contractual requirement for our own employees that would obligate them to arbitrate sexual harassment claims. And we should act immediately and not wait for a new law to be passed. For this reason, effective immediately, we are waiving the contractual requirement for arbitration of sexual harassment claims in our own arbitration agreements for the limited number of employees who have this requirement.

As we look ahead to 2018, it’s important that we all take new steps to address this problem. Every person deserves a workplace where he or she is treated with respect. We’ll continue to identify new opportunities within our own company to support the respectful culture we’re working to advance, and many other companies no doubt will do so as well. But we should also identify steps we can take together as a country. This important and bipartisan piece of legislation is one such step.

According to the bill’s backers, an estimated 60 million Americans have “forced arbitration” clauses in their employment contracts.

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