A Google engineer who set off a firestorm of controversy over the weekend with a ten-page internal memo, in which he denounced the company’s diversity initiatives as discriminatory and claimed that women’s underrepresentation in tech was partially a product of biology, has been fired, Bloomberg reports:
James Damore, the Google engineer who wrote the note, confirmed his dismissal in an email, saying that he had been fired for “perpetuating gender stereotypes.” He said he’s “currently exploring all possible legal remedies.” … Earlier on Monday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent a note to employees that said portions of the memo “violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.” But he didn’t say if the company was taking action against the employee. A Google representative, asked about the dismissal, referred to Pichai’s memo. …
Still, some right-wing [political] websites had already lionized the memo’s author, and firing him could be seen as confirming some of the claims in the memo itself – that the company’s culture makes no room for dissenting political opinions. That outcome could galvanize any backlash against Alphabet’s efforts to make its workforce more diverse.
(Damore has also said he is exploring his legal options for challenging his termination, and we take a look at how that might play out here.)
The bombshell memo was a code-red emergency for Google’s leadership, particularly its HR department and its new diversity chief Danielle Brown, who responded to it on Saturday. Pichai noted in his memo, which Recode’s Kara Swisher passes along in full, that he was cutting short a family vacation to return to Mountain View and hold a town hall meeting with other leaders on Thursday. He also emphasized that Damore’s memo was out of bounds not for expressing unwelcome political views, but rather for disrespecting his female colleagues and creating a hostile work environment for them:
To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK. It is contrary to our basic values and our Code of Conduct, which expects “each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination.”
The memo has clearly impacted our co-workers, some of whom are hurting and feel judged based on their gender. Our co-workers shouldn’t have to worry that each time they open their mouths to speak in a meeting, they have to prove that they are not like the memo states, being “agreeable” rather than “assertive,” showing a “lower stress tolerance,” or being “neurotic.”
However, Pichai also adds that Googlers “must feel free to express dissent” and that the author of the memo (whom he declined to refer to by name) “had a right to express their views on those topics.” Because of the sensitive and politically charged nature of the claims made in Damore’s memo, Swisher observes, the CEO had to make it clear that its author was not merely being punished for thoughtcrime—as some will inevitably claim he was:
Had the employee not belittled women’s skills, I assume, he would not be let go, but he made claims that many consider problematic, although others maintain that his myriad of claims are worthy. … Still, this is a corporation with rules and managers who rule on those rules. So, what is also true is that most free speech is allowed when it comes to the government and within society, but not necessarily within companies. In, fact, it is common for people to lose their jobs for making sexist and racist remarks.
That said, Pichai also noted that the memo did raise some important issues, such as the need for more willingness at Google to include more points of view at the company, including more conservative ones. It’s really a no-win situation for him or anyone, as these issues engender really profound and often ugly disagreement to take place.
Washington Post columnist Jena McGregor solicits the thoughts of some HR and diversity experts, including our own Brian Kropp, on why this is such a difficult situation for Google to navigate:
Earlier on Monday, human resources experts said the situation was a volatile one that risked angering people on both sides. “I’m glad when I woke up this morning I wasn’t the head of HR at Google,” said Brian Kropp, who leads the human resources consulting practice at CEB [now Gartner].
“If you think about the continuum of the workforce, you’ve got one end where people are going to say this person should be fired,” Kropp said, while on the other end, there appear to be employees who may agree with his remarks. “Whatever Google decides to do, they’re going to be potentially disappointing somebody along one of those groups or making them angry.”
Paradoxically, while the controversy Damore’s memo surfaced makes it more challenging for Google to respond without drawing some kind of criticism, other experts tell McGregor that it will also likely put even more pressure on the company to stand up for its commitment to diversity and inclusion:
“In the hallways, people are going to chatter about whose side are you on,” said Patty McCord, the former head of human resources at Netflix and now a consultant on leadership and culture issues. “It will drive a wedge even deeper into what they’re trying to do.” …
Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, said … it will now make it that more imperative for Google to reiterate, communicate and act on its commitment to diversity, as a memo like this can only serve to confirms feelings women have about the discrimination they face. “It brings to life in a public clear way a feeling that more than one person agrees with this kind of thinking,” she said.