Bill and Melinda French Gates’s divorce after a 27-year marriage and a storied partnership instantly became the stuff of tabloid legend, complete with splashy headlines, paparazzi shots, and feverish speculation. Pockets of people around Silicon Valley, in Florida horse country, and across New York City have privately pored over the news for weeks. Just about every mainstream outlet has published details. Inside Microsoft, however, things have been eerily hush-hush. There has been no formal discussion of the split: no company-wide or internal team meetings, no mass emails—at least not yet. According to one current Microsoft employee, the news has had very little—if any—effect on the day-to-day operations at Microsoft. Bill essentially left the company around 2008, this person said, noting that both Gateses started to focus the majority of their time on their charitable foundation.
But all that could be about to change. As the divorce proceeds past initial reports, people who know the couple expect more details to emerge. According to two people familiar with the situation, someone in Melinda’s circle worked with a private investigator leading up to filing, which these people expect to inform both the public and private case. A spokesperson for Melinda called the claim “completely false. Neither Melinda nor anyone at her direction ever hired a private investigator.”
While Microsoft is not commenting on the news, it may get harder for the tech giant not to address reports of Bill’s conduct, both in the office and outside it, as former employees who put up with what they describe as inappropriate workplace behavior, romantic relationships with subordinates, and the demands of a boss who, for years, was painted as a nerdy tech savior, finally feel free to unburden themselves.
There was a time when Bill Gates was seen as one of the most evil people alive; typing his name into an early internet search engine returned results for terms like antichrist. People cheered when Microsoft initially lost its famous 2001 antitrust case, after Gates himself was grilled by David Boies. But since then, Gates has embarked on a 20-year public relations effort to frame himself as a good-guy geek deeply excited by new technologies and leading the effort to fix the ills of the world. He’s given away billions to fight malaria, climate change, world hunger. He led the effort to warn of a potential global pandemic (back in 2017, Gates famously said a pandemic was imminent and could lead to the deaths of more than 30 million people), and then, when his vision became reality and COVID-19 obliterated the global economy and killed millions, there he was at the forefront of vaccine research efforts.
In the wake of his divorce, however, it has become increasingly clear that there is an undeniable duality to Bill Gates. The decades of stories about him being difficult to work with are correct, said one former employee. They have been largely suppressed by Gates’s liberal use of nondisclosure agreements, ostensibly to keep more damning details under wraps, this person said. “For such a long time you were told, ‘You have an NDA. You can’t talk,’” said the former employee, who signed such an agreement. The current wave of reporting around Gates’s behavior encouraged this person to open up, but they are keenly aware that Gates has lawyers at the ready. “And these are not nice lawyers,” they added.
Like most tech company leaders, the employee explained, Gates was often impatient and demanding—behavior that was commonplace given the rapid speed of the industry, the fierce jockeying for leadership roles, and the market fluctuations, wherein the biggest tech companies in the world can gain or lose billions in market value in a single day. A former partner who worked directly with Gates at Microsoft on some major product announcements explained that if a deadline was missed, the party responsible would answer directly to Gates. The former employee who signed an NDA called him “unrelenting” and “condescending,” adding, “He would ask you a question, and when you answered, he’d look at you and go, ‘That is NOT the right answer.’”
For years there have been whispers, within Microsoft and in Gates’s broader professional and social circles, about inappropriate extramarital relationships. None of it was entirely shocking, despite the seeming contrast with his public persona. Bill and Melinda’s relationship began as an office romance, with Bill as the boss and Melinda as the younger employee whom he flirted with at a conference before asking her out in the company parking lot. As The New York Times reported, Bill pursued women who worked for him a few times when he was the chairman of Microsoft, once emailing an employee to ask her out to dinner, and another time telling a woman who worked for the Gates Foundation that he wanted to take her out to dinner while they were on a business trip to New York. According to the Times, the women did not feel pressured, but the balance of power was hopelessly lopsided. In 2019, Microsoft’s board of directors opened an investigation into Bill’s behavior after it was notified about his advances on an employee in 2000, according to The Wall Street Journal. Bill stepped down from the board the following year, after the company hired a law firm to look into the allegation. (A spokeswoman has said that his “decision to transition off the board” had nothing to do with the affair.)
For the people who worked for him, Bill’s behavior was something of an open secret. The former employee who signed an NDA said there were times when Bill came into the office driving a Mercedes, and an hour later, one of his security personnel showed up with a golden brown Porsche that Bill drove away in. “We all assumed that it was when he was with women,” the employee said. “I knew there were many offsite meetings that were not on his calendar.” According to someone close to Bill, his infidelities were no secret to many of the people around him. Yet another source close to Bill disputed that he would disappear from the office, saying he was “one of the most intensely scheduled people on the planet.”