'The most taboo topic I've ever seen': Inside Microsoft's war over the war in Gaza

'The most taboo topic I've ever seen': Inside Microsoft's war over the war in Gaza
A Microsoft logo is being shattered, with the Israel and Palestinian flags overlaid on top.
Internal Microsoft posts offer a window into the anger and vitriol that workplaces across America grapple with as the war has escalated. Chelsea Jia Feng/BI

Viva Engage, Microsoft's slick message board designed to compete with Slack, is often touted as "Facebook for work." Microsoft says the tool "strengthens relationships" among remote and hybrid employees and "creates a sense of belonging and purpose." But since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, Business Insider has learned, the Viva Engage platform that Microsoft maintains for its own employees has come to resemble Facebook without work: a site of roiling hostility and personal attacks.

In October, according to internal messages viewed by BI, a Microsoft employee shared a post praising child tax credits as a way to reduce poverty. The post made no mention of the war. But the person was using the Palestinian flag as his avatar — and that was enough to provoke an irate response.

"Have you noticed," another employee commented, "that your profile pic is similar to the flag used by a terrorist group that has just tortured and beheaded hundreds of children and civilians?"

In a separate post, when another employee expressed concerns for civilians in Gaza, a colleague responded, "You are basically supporting the rape, killing, and kidnapping of women, kids, and grandparents."

"Celebrating or supporting this 'nation' is no different than celebrating or supporting the mass shootings in Uvalde or Sandy Hook," another coworker chimed in.

Employees with pro-Palestinian views have also used inflammatory language in their posts on Viva Engage. One decried Israel's actions in Gaza as "ethnic cleansing." Another accused a coworker who supported Israel of "allowing a genocide on Gaza."

Microsoft, like many companies, has increasingly taken a stand on social and political issues. After George Floyd was murdered in 2020, the company pledged to double the number of Black employees in senior roles by 2025. "We are committed to take action to help address racial injustice and inequity, and unequivocally believe that Black lives matter," CEO Satya Nadella wrote at the time. When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, Kathleen Hogan, the company's chief people officer, sent a companywide email, viewed by BI, calling it "a very difficult day for many of us, including me." After Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, the company issued several statements of support for Israel, offered to match employee donations to Israeli organizations, including the nonprofit Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, and granted Microsoft's 3,000 Israeli employees a $3,000 stipend for "unexpected expenses because of the situation."

But the debate raging on Microsoft's internal message board is testing that new openness to mixing business and politics — just as it has at elite institutions from Harvard and Columbia to Silicon Valley and Wall Street. Internal Microsoft posts and emails reviewed by BI offer a window into the anger and vitriol that workplaces across America grapple with as the war escalates. What was once the province of the watercooler has migrated to company-sponsored forums such as Slack and Viva Engage, forcing employers to decide where to draw the line on discussing politics at work.

Microsoft has actively attempted to regulate the internal debate over the war. It has advised managers to "avoid providing additional commentary on the war" beyond the company's official statements. It has cut off the comments to Viva Engage posts it considered too incendiary. And in at least one instance, a manager has reprimanded an employee for a post deemed inappropriate.

But internally, Microsoft's moves have only served to further inflame tensions. Some employees accuse the company of moderating posts that expressed concern for Palestinians, while its executives have openly expressed support for Israel. "What I found particularly troubling is the double standard," said the reprimanded employee, who was ordered to stop posting political messages on Viva Engage after they shared news reports about civilian casualties in Gaza. "Because our leaders do talk about politics at work very regularly — as I believe they should. This is the most taboo topic I've ever seen."

Other employees echoed that concern. "What is very disappointing about Microsoft," one said, "is we chose this company because of its values and mission statement to 'empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.' Our mission statement says 'every person,' but it feels like Palestinian employees don't exist."

Microsoft insists that its role in the debate has been even-handed. "We have been explicit that our priority lies with our employees," the company said in a statement. "We are not taking a 'side.'" But some employees who support Israel seem to believe the company shares their views on the war — and feel emboldened to express hostility to coworkers they deem insufficiently pro-Israel, without fear of reprisal.

"Hopefully you know that the entire company is reading your comments," one employee posted in response to a discussion about ways to provide support to Palestinian civilians affected by the war.

"And hopefully those employees will find themselves out of this company," another employee added.


Complicating Microsoft's role in the debate is the company's financial stake in Israel, where it has maintained offices since 1989. In 1991, the company opened its first research-and-development center outside the US in Haifa — "one of the first major tech companies to do so in Israel," Microsoft touts. Today, it has campuses in Herzliya, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Nazareth. In 2021, the company announced it would invest up to $1.5 billion to build a data center in Israel and expand its R&D for chips. Israel, Nadella told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the time, "is a very important development center for Microsoft."

Like many companies, Microsoft and its executives were quick to express its support for Israel after Hamas unleashed its assault on October 7 and took some 240 hostages. "Our hearts are with all of you as we witness the devastating attack on your country," Charlie Bell, the executive vice president of Microsoft security, emailed the company's Israeli employees on the day of the attack. "Your safety is the most important thing to all of us."

"We stand with Israel," Scott Guthrie, the executive vice president of Microsoft cloud, wrote in an internal email to the cloud and artificial-intelligence team on October 9. "My thoughts are with our Israeli and Jewish colleagues and everyone impacted by these events, along with their friends and family around the world," Rajesh Jha, the leader of the experiences and devices team, wrote on Viva Engage on October 10.

Jha's post sparked an immediate response on the message board. "Can we also offer thoughts, prayers and blessings to any and all of our Palestinian colleagues who may be afraid for their families and friends and in fear for themselves?" one employee wrote. "This conflict has two sides of humans who are impacted by the violence of politics."

The response, in turn, infuriated another employee. "It's saddening to see terror supporters among my colleagues," they wrote. "Whoever suggests this massacre is part of some freedom fighting has lost all humanity."

As Israel launched a counteroffensive on Gaza, fierce arguments began to erupt on Viva Engage. "Rest assured the IDF is doing all it can to avoid civilian casualties," one employee posted, "but the people of Gaza elected Hamas, supported them and brought this on themselves."

"How can you put innocent civilians in the same category as terrorist organizations?" another employee responded. "Killing innocent civilians from either side is never right, and feeling bad for everyone involved is just basic human decency."

"I'm not and we are fighting to liberate Israelis and the people of Gaza from these terrorists," the original poster wrote. "Trying to create a symmetry or depict it as a conflict with 2 legitimate sides is either ignorant or immoral."

In another post, one employee shared a message of concern for Microsoft employees who "have friends and family in Palestine," saying: "Those people are currently being wiped and having their livelihoods destroyed. They are forbidden from food, water, electricity, and basic medical supplies. They are not terrorists nor do they have an agenda against Israelis. Please stand on the same distance between both parties. That's the least you could do."

"We're talking about terrorism here," another employee responded. "There's no justification for that."

Another employee further fanned the flames: "We are not able to contain the evil inflicted on us on Saturday morning. That requires us to change the rules of the game. The Hamas infra in Gaza will be exterminated. The price on human life will be high since the cowards are hiding behind civilians.… This is a survival war for Israel. I can assure you we will win this one."


As the infighting escalated, employees pressed the company to moderate the war of words. "Microsoft Leadership needs to get a very strong grip on the messaging around this," one employee posted. "They risk causing significant distress to many Palestinian, Arab, and Jewish employees when statements are crafted hastily and comment sections are left unmoderated."

"Palestinian people like me received zero support from our leadership," another employee wrote. "They were very clearly biased and our colleagues in Israel acted racist and rude and didn't acknowledge or respect our pain. Let us all align and respect 'One Microsoft' to support one another. In such painful times there is opportunity to acknowledge some wrong behaviors that don't align with Microsoft values and culture."

Another employee disagreed. "People that encourage terror acts and war crimes should get zero support," they posted. "Israel has the right to defend itself. The only bias I see here is yours, where you don't see Hamas responsible for what is happening right now in the Gaza strip."

But when the company did step into the debate, it closed to comments many posts that expressed support for the people of Palestine and Gaza. In mid-October, one employee posted that they felt a "strong sense of disillusionment with our work and the company" over what they viewed as "one-sided statements" by Microsoft's senior leaders. "It saddens me to witness a company that so strongly promotes Diversity and Inclusion show such strong discrimination and marginalization," the employee wrote. "It appears to me that the company is oblivious to the overwhelming and disproportionate suffering of the Palestinian people." Microsoft closed the post to comments after 600 reactions and 60 comments.

The company also closed several other posts to comments. One read, simply: "We demand a #CeasefireNow Microsoft!!" Another was addressed to the "over 10,000 men, women, and children in Gaza who have been needlessly killed." Another said, "It feels very hard to witness what can only be described as ethnic cleansing, which is not only backed up by most of the Western media but also ignored by the senior leadership of the company I work for every day." Each of the closed posts was appended with the same note from the community manager, which reminded employees to "practice compassion and kindness to each other."

Microsoft, for its part, insists that inflammatory comments about the war represent what Letty Cherry, a company spokesperson, called "a very small portion of the conversation" on Viva Engage. "Since these events first unfolded," Cherry said in a statement, "we have continued to reiterate through our messaging, actions and philanthropic efforts that our focus is on the safety of our employees — that includes our nearly 3,000 employees directly impacted in Israel as well as our Palestinian, Jewish, and Muslim employees around the globe. We have a process in place to moderate employee comments as well as take action on behavior that goes against our company policy or values."

Other organizations have also found themselves struggling to navigate the debate raging over the war in Gaza. Harvard and other elite universities have faced public backlash from major donors enraged by student statements they view as anti-Israel. Davis Polk & Wardwell, one of the world's largest law firms, has rescinded job offers to students from Ivy League schools who criticized Israel's role in the conflict. Google, The New York Times reported, "has sunk into a morass of hostility and intolerance" for both Muslim and Jewish employees. And Apple, BI has learned, has indefinitely suspended its Slack channels for Jewish and Muslim employees. (The company has 2,000 employees in Israel, where it maintains an R&D center north of Tel Aviv.) "We're taking this action," an Apple employee responsible for the Muslim Slack channel said, "to ensure a respectful environment for our communities during a painful and tragic time."

At Microsoft, the attempt to moderate the internal debate finally made it all the way to the top. On November 8, after more than 1,000 employees signed a letter on Viva Engage urging the company to support a ceasefire, Nadella posted a message of his own. In it, the CEO made a point of expressing concern for both Israeli and Palestinian employees.

"It's important to recognize the pain and suffering of so many people, including our colleagues, as the events in Israel, Gaza, and the surrounding region continue to unfold," Nadella wrote. "I am extending my deepest sympathy and support to our Israeli and Palestinian employees globally who are consumed with grief and concern for their loved ones, as well as our Jewish and Muslim colleagues who are facing a terrifying increase in antisemitism and Islamophobia."

Nadella also urged employees to moderate the tone of their messages. "There is absolutely no place in our company for hate and intolerance of any kind," he wrote. "We must continue to commit ourselves to inclusion and acceptance, and stand together against hate and intolerance wherever we see it."

Nadella's message did not allow comments.

Nor did it stem the barrage of rancor among employees. On November 16, barely a week after Nadella issued his plea for civility and respect, Microsoft blocked employees from posting in the "All Company" channel on Viva Engage, which circulates messages to all of Microsoft's 400,000 employees and vendors. To maintain order, Microsoft had effectively been forced to shut down a key function of one of its most touted products. The company, which said the change had been "in development for some time," told employees it was limiting the channel to "announcements and information that everyone should know." In the midst of a divisive war, it would seem, the last thing a workplace needs is a "Facebook for work."


Ashley Stewart is a chief technology correspondent at Business Insider. She reports on enterprise technology companies including Microsoft and Amazon Web Services from Seattle.

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