Should CEO Satya Nadella Cancel Microsoft’s Contract with ICE?

Microsoft employees are putting heat on CEO Satya Nadella to cancel its contract with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. What would you do? asks James Heskett.
by James Heskett


Since becoming CEO of Microsoft in 2014, 25-year company veteran Satya Nadella, had, according to one report, “been positioning (Microsoft) … as tech’s moral leader.” The focus of Nadella’s attention was the organization’s culture. With comments such as “The C in CEO stands for culture,” he set about changing the company’s mission from “a computer on every desk and in every home” to one of “empower(ing) every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.”

He was quoted as saying, “My mission is to put empathy at the center of everything I pursue—from the products we launch, to the new markets we enter, to the employees, customers and partners we work with.” He stressed the importance of developing “that deeper sense of empathy and compassion for everything around you” and finding “meaning in our work … work that will improve other people’s lives.”

These were significant departures from the messages sent by his predecessors.

“My mission is to put empathy at the center of everything I pursue”

Little did Nadella know that Microsoft would become caught up in the controversy concerning the treatment of immigrant families crossing the southern border of the United States Beginning in April, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions had instructed the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to pursue a “zero tolerance” policy of arresting all those crossing the border illegally, requiring the separation of adults from children, as a means of discouraging further illegal entry (and some maintained immigration itself).

Microsoft had featured the work it was doing for ICE in a January blog post. Microsoft’s Azure Government software allows organizations to move operations and processing to the cloud.

Employees: Use technology for good

On June 19, an open letter was posted on Microsoft’s internal message board. “We request that Microsoft cancel its contracts with ICE, and with other clients who directly enable ICE,” the message said. “As the people who build the technologies that Microsoft profits from, we refuse to be complicit. We are part of a growing movement, comprised of many across the industry who recognize the grave responsibility that those creating powerful technology have to ensure what they build is used for good, and not for harm.”

Within 48 hours, over 300 (out of about 120,000) Microsoft employees had attached their names to the message.

The Microsoft employee message was characteristic of a growing concern within the high tech community about social issues and the use of its technology. Senior executives of Apple, Tesla, Google, Uber, and Cisco, among others, already had spoken out about the treatment of migrants. A collection, led by Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, was being taken up for them on Facebook. On June 26, an article appeared on the web site of The Guardian titled, “When should a tech company refuse to build tools for the government?”

In a statement, Satya Nadella said the company’s contract with ICE “is supporting legacy mail, calendar, messaging and document management workloads,” not programs where children are separated from their families. Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, posted a comment decrying the immigration policy on LinkedIn. That did not appear to be sufficient for some Microsoft employees. At least one tweeted asking how “working with ICE matched with the company’s ‘ethical stances.’”

Possible responses facing Microsoft ranged all the way from doing little or nothing in hopes that the protest would soon be forgotten to cancelling Microsoft’s $19.6 million contract with ICE.

As a trusted advisor to Satya Nadella, what, if anything, would you suggest he do now? What do you think?


Sheera Frenkel, Microsoft Employees Protest Work With ICE, as Tech Industry Mobilizes Over Immigration, The New York Times, June 20, 2018

Colin Lecher, The employee letter denouncing Microsoft’s ICE contract now has over 300 signaturesThe Verge, June 26, 2018,

Satya Nadella, with Greg Shaw and Jill Tracie Nichols, Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone

Olivia Solon, When should a tech company refuse to build tools for the government?The Guardian, June 26, 2018,

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