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Microsoft President Brad Smith. Photo: AP

Microsoft is throwing its weight behind a Senate bill that aims to ensure victims of workplace sexual harassment can make their case in court. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Kirsten Gillibrand recently introduced a bill outlawing provisions in an employment contract that require such claims to be handled in private arbitration rather than openly in court.

Why it matters: The tech industry has become embroiled in several sexual harassment scandals over the past year. Graham says as many as 60 million American workers have no legal ability to bring sexual harassment claims to court because they are bound by private arbitration clauses.

  • That means they are required to mediate any issue behind closed doors rather than in a public court. Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith said it is both endorsing the legislation and getting rid of such clauses in its own employment contracts.
  • "Clearly as we all learn more about the sexual harassment issue across the country, it is both more pervasive than most people would have thought a year ago, and it's an issue that's been allowed to perpetuate itself in part because the voices of victims have been silenced," Smith told Axios in an interview. "The ability to go to court makes sure those voices can be heard."

What he found: Smith said Microsoft has never enforced a private arbitration clause related to sexual harassment, but reviewed its own contracts and found clauses requiring pre-dispute arbitration for harassment claims in employment agreements for a small portion of its employees. Smith said "hundreds to a thousand" employees (mostly very senior positions out of 120,000 employees worldwide) were subject to such clauses. So the company is getting rid of them.

Beyond the company: He thinks the issue will continue to be a major conversation in the technology industry. "We've been among those that thought arbitration as an exclusive remedy was practical," he said. "It's clear that arbitration has not been sufficient to address this problem."

Go deeper

Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling

Photo: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Starbucks has dropped plans to require that U.S. workers get the COVID vaccine or submit to weekly testing, the company announced Tuesday in a memo to employees.

Why it matters: The company's decision comes in response to the Supreme Court's ruling last week to block the Biden administration's COVID-19 vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

3 hours ago - World

Netanyahu plea talks enter crunch time

Netanyahu (right) meets with his lawyer ahead of a court hearing last February. Photo: Reuven Casto/Pool/AFP via Getty

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's opposition leader and former prime minister, is negotiating a possible plea deal over the corruption charges against him, but Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit appears to be toughening his terms.

Why it matters: Mandelblit leaves office on Jan. 31. Negotiations could continue beyond that point, but the next attorney general may be less interested in quickly reaching a deal.

3 hours ago - Health

Omicron hits American hospitals disproportionately hard

Expand chart
Data: Our World in Data; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

America is seeing more COVID hospitalizations than other wealthy countries during the Omicron surge, according to Our World in Data.

Why it matters: Vaccines keep the vast majority of COVID cases out of the hospital, but vaccination rates are also lower in the U.S. than these other countries.