Microsoft employees recently made the news protesting the company’s $479 million contract with the U.S. Military to create mixed reality headsets using the HoloLens platform for use in war. Click on the link if you have no clue what we are talking about, but these are basically headsets that blend reality and virtual reality into the wearer’s experience. Anyway, whatever it is Microsoft is working on something for the U.S. Military that, using this technology, “provides increased lethality, mobility, and situational awareness necessary to achieve overmatch against our current and future adversaries.”
Some of the Microsoft engineers tasked with working on this project signed a petition stating that they “refuse to create technology for warfare and oppression” and demanding that Microsoft stop the project. Microsoft has so far not heeded the employees’ demands to stop working with the U.S. Military on this project and it is not expected that they will.
When employees revolt
When employees are upset about a corporate direction or don’t want to work on a certain project because it conflicts with their own ethical code what happens? Can they just refuse to work? Do their ethical objections need to be accommodated by moving them to another project? Like most answers you’re bound to get from a lawyer, it depends.
Do disgruntled employees need to be accommodated?
Is what the employee is being asked to do within the scope of their contract or job? Any fundamental change to the terms of the employee’s contract or job could constitute a constructive dismissal. This would give the employee the right to make a claim against the employer for wrongful dismissal and notice damages.
Is the employee being asked to do something that is within the scope of their job but that violates their human rights somehow. Perhaps, for example, the work project is somehow contrary to their religious beliefs. In this case, an employer may need to provide the employee with accommodations.
If there are neither human rights nor constructive dismissal concerns an employer probably won’t legally have to kowtow to what more rightfully be seen as their employees’ preferences. If an employee simply refuses to work this may be grounds for a for cause dismissal or frustration of contract. However, employers who have the capacity to do so may be wise to be sensitive to the preferences of their employees. Millennials, in particular, are known for having strong preferences and for speaking up when they disagree. Knowledge-based employers like Microsoft cannot afford to lose large numbers of talented and skilled people and so would do well to keep them as happy and productive as possible.
Are you facing an ethical dilemma regarding a project in your workplace? Do you have employees in revolt over new duties? If so we’re here to help!