Microsoft discrimination case highlights pitfalls of "employee referral"

Microsoft has been accused in the US courts of employment discrimination against black employees. In the UK, it is level with...

Microsoft has been accused in the US courts of employment discrimination against black employees. In the UK, it is level with the industry average in terms of minority employees, but acknowledges that word-of mouth recruitment policies could be a problem. Anna Potter reports.


Microsoft has remained tight-lipped about the employment discrimination lawsuit filed by seven ethnic minority employees in a U.S. District Court this week. Microsoft's global vice president of human resources, Deborah Willingham, said the company had no further comment because the matter was under litigation.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Microsoft said the number of ethnic minority employees matched the national average. But the company remained concerned about the impact of the skills shortage on recruitment methods, and was keeping a close eye on the effects of word of mouth recruitment.

Steve Harvey, HR director at Microsoft UK, speaking generally about the company's employment practices, said that the number of people from ethnic minorities was more than adequate in comparison to other UK based firms. "We have a workforce of about 13,000 which contains 6.5% of employees from ethnic minorities, which in fact matches national average figures," he said.

"We currently have over 200 vacancies in Microsoft in the UK and more than 8,000 globally. A large percentage of those positions are America based and IT recruitment is a expanding field at this moment in time," said Harvey.

"Something that can be an issue when employing for a rapidly expanding company in the IT sector is employee referral. Positions are filled by word of mouth and this denies the proper cross section of possible candidates to be considered."

"We make sure that this method of recruiting is only one part of many other recruitment routes. A major challenge to the IT industry is to find out why people don't apply for positions. That information would be of considerable help in tailoring job description to both the company's and the individuals needs."

A spokesperson at UK's Commision for Racial Equality confirmed that word of mouth recruitment could open IT employers up to discrimination claims. "It might not be a case of active discrimination but with a network of employees coming from personal contacts of the firm it makes it very difficult to ensure ethnic employment monitoring."

Lawyers for seven Microsoft employees accused the software giant in the US of fostering a hostile work environment where black employees were discriminated against against in evaluations, promotions and compensation. The suit also accuses the company of wrongfully terminating the contracts of some African-American employees


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