Google Cancels Town Hall Meeting on Diversity Memo Following Online Harassment of Employees

Google Cancels Town Hall Meeting on Diversity Memo Following Online Harassment of Employees

Google CEO Sundar Pichai canceled a town hall meeting he had scheduled for Thursday to discuss the issues raised by an employee’s controversial memo questioning the company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, and the subsequent termination of the author of that memo, engineer James Damore. Pichai said he opted to cancel the meeting after questions intended for the meeting were leaked to the media and some Google employees’ names ended up on “alt-right” websites, resulting in them becoming targets of online harassment, Recode’s Kara Swisher reports:

“We had hoped to have a frank, open discussion today as we always do to bring us together and move forward. But our [internally submitted] questions appeared externally this afternoon, and on some websites Googlers are now being named personally,” wrote Pichai to employees. “Googlers are writing in, concerned about their safety and worried they may be ‘outed’ publicly for asking a question in the Town Hall.” …

Sources inside Google said some employees had begun to experience “doxxing” — online harassment that can take various forms and is defined as “searching for and publishing private or identifying information about [a particular individual] on the internet, typically with malicious intent.” Several sites … have been publishing internal discussion posts and giving out information on those employees.

“In recognition of Googlers’ concerns,” Pichai wrote in his announcement that the meeting was canceled, “we need to step back and create a better set of conditions for us to have the discussion. So in the coming days we will find several forums to gather and engage with Googlers, where people can feel comfortable to speak freely.”

The “alt-right,” a controversial ultra-conservative political movement with a heavy presence on social media, has been quick to claim Damore as an ideological hero and a victim of what they see as a liberal agenda of stifling conservatives’ right to free speech. According to the Mercury News, some alt-right leaders are also now calling for a “March on Google” targeting the company’s Mountain View, California headquarters and other offices later this month, with march organizer Jack Posobiec telling the News that the activists’ intent is “to raise awareness about Google’s one-sided bias and campaign against dissenting opinions and voices.”

While threats and harassment from the alt-right may have been the proximate cause for Pichai canceling Thursday’s meeting, the event was already fraught with other risks. Earlier on Thursday, Swisher had written about how difficult the company-wide meeting was going to be, as well as how Google’s leadership has struggled with how to respond to Damore’s memo—particularly when the company has typically “allowed its employees an unusual amount of latitude to air their opinions on a myriad of online platforms and in offline gatherings on everything from the quality of the food at its many free cafeterias to the political stances of the company”:

“Just like all of Google is struggling with this, we were not unanimous at first about whether what [Damore] wrote merited firing, although we all came around to it,” said one top exec. “But Sundar had to make a call about what kind of Google he wanted to stress and he did.”

Others familiar with the meeting said it centered on how much latitude employees should have to express their opinions — one of the central tenets of Google since its founding — versus creating a culture that is trying to become attractive and safe to a broader range of people.

“I think the problem and also benefit of Google has been that we’ve created and encouraged an environment where everyone thinks they can say what they want, because that is what has always been the way it has been,” said another top exec. “But, at some point, if we really want to change, we have to think harder about what impact that has, especially when it makes women or others feel unsafe in the environment we have created.”

Employee reactions have also been mixed:

Some inside Google think it took too long for bosses there to react to what they consider a fatuous screed; others disagree with their decision to eject Damore from the company altogether for speaking his mind. And some want the company to do even more to fix persistent statistics that show around 80 percent of its technical staff is male, which might have led to such musings; others think Google’s diversity programs to help improve the numbers are deeply flawed and even discriminatory toward men.

The Wall Street Journal’s Jack Nicas has more on the internal debate raging at Google over whether it was right to fire Damore and whether the claims he made in his memo were accurate—topics which were likely to dominate Thursday’s conversation:

The variety of responses reflect that there are many conservatives and libertarians among the employee ranks at tech firms, even though they are seen as predominantly liberal. At Alphabet, which has nearly 76,000 employees, Mr. Damore’s firing has posed a test for how employees’ views compare with their co-workers’, inflaming feelings still raw from the divisive presidential election, employees said.

Wired reports that Google employees contributed more than 250 questions for the meeting using the company’s internal web app, Dory, which allows Googlers to submit and vote on questions that the company’s executives should have to answer. As of Thursday morning, at least 135,000 votes had been cast on the potential questions by more than 5,400 employees:

“The doc asserted that Google has a lower bar for diversity candidates,” reads one question ranked highly by employees in an internal voting system. “This is hurting minority Googlers because it creates the perception that they are less qualified. What can we do to combat that perception?”

Another employee echoed some of the concerns Damore voiced in his memo about ideological diversity at Google. “I am a moderately conservative Googler, and I am and have been scared to share my beliefs,” the question reads. “The loud voice here is the liberal one. Conservative voices are hushed. What is leadership doing to ensure Googlers like me feel invited and accepted, not just tolerated or safe from angry mobs?”

The issues of employee safety and privacy, which ultimately led to the meeting’s cancellation, were also high on Googler’s minds:

Many of the highly ranked questions concern leaks from Google, perceived threats to employees because of their views, and Google’s own public relations efforts. The top-ranked question as of Thursday morning was from an employee worried about being harassed or threatened if his or her name and opinion were leaked to outsiders. On Wednesday, conservative pundit Milo Yiannopoulos posted on his Facebook page the Twitter biographies of eight Google employees who criticized Damore’s post. Another highly ranked question seeks better conflict-resolution skills, and a third suggests that executives communicate more clearly that all Google employees deserve to be at the company.

After canceling the meeting, Google’s CEO attended a coding event for girls held at the Googleplex on Thursday, where he stressed that women are welcome and needed in the tech industry, Helen Regan reports at Fortune:

“I want you to know there’s a place for you in this industry,” Pichai told a crowd of young women on Thursday, according to the Verge. “There’s a place for you at Google. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You belong here and we need you.” Pichai was speaking at the Technovation awards that honored teams of young women coders from all over the world. The months-long competition involved teams of girls developing apps to solve issues in their communities.

“At Google, we are very committed to building products for everyone in the world, and I think to do that well we really need to have people internally who represent the world in totality,” he said. “So it’s really important that more women and girls have the opportunity to participate in technology, to learn how to code, create, and innovate.”