WSJ: Bill Gates left Microsoft board during probe into inappropriate relations with employee

By Ather Fawaz

Bill Gates
Image via Jeff Pachoud (Getty Images)

On March 13, 2020, Bill Gates, the co-founder, and former CEO of Microsoft stepped down from the firm's board of directors three months after being re-elected to the seat. The same day, he also stepped down from the board at Berkshire Hathaway. In his formal statement, Gates said that the decision was taken so that he could focus more on "global health, development, education, and his increasing engagement in tackling climate change." But a new report from the Wall Street Journal provides a tangential take on the resignation.

Citing people familiar with the matter, the Wall Street Journal report claims that in late 2019, Microsoft board members hired a law firm to investigate Bill Gates' prior romantic relationship with a female Microsoft employee from the year 2000. A company spokesman said:

“Microsoft received a concern in the latter half of 2019 that Bill Gates sought to initiate an intimate relationship with a company employee in the year 2000. A committee of the Board reviewed the concern, aided by an outside law firm to conduct a thorough investigation. Throughout the investigation, Microsoft provided extensive support to the employee who raised the concern.”

The female engineer involved shared details of her personal relationship with Bill Gates over the years and "demanded changes to her Microsoft job", the people said. During the probe, some board members opined that Gates was no longer suitable to sit at the helm of Microsoft as its director. This was a time when the #MeToo movement was picking up pace and members of the board concluded that the relationship had been inappropriate, therefore, Mr. Gates must forgo his position.

However, Gates resigned before the committee could complete its investigation and pass a verdict. A spokeswoman for Mr. Gates rejected a link between the two successive events. She affirmed that the probe had no bearing on Gates' decision to step down and that the relationship itself had ended on amicable terms.

"There was an affair almost 20 years ago which ended amicably.” [His] decision to transition off the board was in no way related to this matter. In fact, he had expressed an interest in spending more time on his philanthropy starting several years earlier."

The late 2019 probe came at a time when the Redmond firm had pledged to improve the way it handled sexual harassment and complaints thereof and was investing heavily in the human resources staff who would address such complaints. This change was prompted by an email chain in which female employees at Microsoft complained of discrimination and sexual harassment at the firm.

The latest report from the Wall Street Journal comes a couple of weeks after Bill Gates and his former wife Melinda French decided to end their 27-years long marriage. In a joint statement on Twitter, the two stated that they "no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in the next phase of our lives". A few days later, reports suggested that Gates' connections with Jefferey Epstein drove the wedge between the couple as Melinda grew concerned over her former husband's ties with the convicted sex offender. Gates maintained that his relation was apropos his work in philanthropy and that he regretted the connection later.