How Should Employers Respond to Challenges Like Google’s Diversity Memo?

Google’s decision to fire James Damore, a senior engineer who circulated a memo criticizing the company’s diversity efforts and making questionable claims about the biological differences between men and women, was bound to fan the flames of the controversy the memo had sparked. Was terminating this employee the right call? Reasonable arguments can be made on both sides of the debate, and as our HR practice leader Brian Kropp remarked in an interview with the Washington Post, Google had no good options here: Whether it had fired Damore or declined to fire him, either decision was going to upset a certain group of people.

One of the challenges that any talent executive or head of diversity and inclusion will face when inflammatory internal communications like Damore’s memo go public is in figuring out whether they are dealing with a single person who has managed to rile up the Internet (the “don’t feed the trolls” challenge), or are facing a real source of tension from a segment of the workforce. If it’s the former, it’s a great opportunity to make sure that people are aware that you are addressing D&I, and that it’s a key part of your core values; if the latter, it could prompt the organization to reorganize its D&I strategy along the lines of what Deloitte is doing, and double down on inclusion to ensure that everyone gets on board.

Below are some thoughts on what the Google controversy reveals about the challenges facing diversity and inclusion, as well as what employers can learn from the debate in order to strengthen their future D&I efforts.

The Dangers of Backlash

The downside for an organization of reacting to an incident like this with absolute rejection is that it contributes to the framing of D&I as a zero-sum game, which gives ammunition to those who oppose it. When an organization treats a skeptic like Damore as a threat, employees who fear being left behind by D&I efforts or having their viewpoints marginalized in pursuit of diversity will tend to see that as proof of their point. While Google CEO Sundar Pichai told employees that Damore’s memo had crossed a line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes, he also acknowledged the more valid concerns it raised about whether Google’s approach to diversity was optimal and whether employees with minority opinions could safely express them in the workplace.

In other words, irrespective of whether Damore violated norms of professionalism and collegiality in the way he voiced his opinions, and of whether the company was within its rights to terminate his employment, Google does not want to be perceived as making rules about what employees are allowed to think.

What makes D&I hard for a lot of organizations is that when employees are only aware of initiatives like improving representation or equity in hiring, promotions, or pay, they are positioned to think that D&I comes at the expense of those employees who do not belong to historically disadvantaged demographics. This framing was prominent in Damore’s memo, which cast Google’s outreach to women and racial minorities as discriminatory against white, male employees like himself. Thankfully, executives have a little bit of a head start, as many of us have done a lot of work reframing D&I around another core value: namely, collaboration or network contribution.

Most companies have gone through, or are continuing to go through, growing pains as they transition from an organization of individual contributors to one of enterprise contributors. That process requires us to talk about why things need to be done differently, why we are all needed in this process, and why it takes all of us doing it together all the time to make it work. Organizations with successful D&I programs are operating in the same way: We need to do things differently, but every employee is an integral component of this initiative and D&I is not going to happen if we’re not all in it together.

What Should Google Do Next?

Google’s new Vice President of Diversity, Integrity & Governance, Danielle Brown, took a significant first step towards Google responding to the memo. She not only acted quickly in spite of her limited tenure at the company, but also was intentional in clarifying where the company stood on diversity: that it is important to the organization and it will be a continued part of the company culture.

However, her statement, along with Pichai’s, are just a start. To fully grapple with the mindset Damore’s memo represents, Google needs to make sure it is creating a safe environment for employees with differing views to speak up, while maintaining its commitment to D&I as a core element of its company culture. The town hall meeting Pichai and other leaders at Google scheduled for Thursday will be a good opportunity to begin what may be a lengthy and challenging process. To that end, here are a few other steps Google can take:

  • Determine the magnitude of the backlash to diversity: While most Googlers seem to disagree with Damore’s perspective, some employees expressed support for it on the anonymous tech sector platform Blind. What Google doesn’t know yet is how widespread these sentiments are. Is this mindset the perspective of a few individuals within the organization, or is it something that many employees relate to? If the size of this is a roadblock to D&I advancement, then the business as a whole can suffer from it and therefore the business should address it. If not, does this become a conversation between the manager or HR business partner and employees?
  • Leverage this opportunity to articulate the organization’s D&I strategy and every employee’s role in it: Google has a clear opportunity to communicate their D&I strategy back to the business and how that strategy not only is important for employee engagement, but also has clear business implications.
  • Consider putting together smaller conversations: If employees do not have an outlet for this conversation and it is having an impact on organizational culture, the organization should give employees the opportunity to discuss the impact of the “anti-diversity” letter in a structured and D&I-led environment. At CEB (now Gartner), we have seen many organizations successfully engage in difficult diversity conversations with their employees to ensure the organization’s culture is enhanced rather than harmed. CEB Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Council members can see examples of this from Ameren and Ripley.
  • Define what inclusion, unconscious bias, and psychological safety mean for the organization: As seen in this situation, if Google or another company does not define what these words mean for their culture, then individuals within the organization may interpret them in ways that do not align with its D&I mission and strategy. Google’s challenge here is to clarify its role in creating safe spaces for moving forward as a company, while continuing to broaden the definition of diversity.

Lessons for Employers

While Google tests their paths forward, other employers can take several important lessons away from this story.

  • It should come as no surprise that there are probably individuals in your workforce who are not on board with your D&I approach: While there’s an incredible pull towards the next “hot” approach to D&I and a lot of attention on “what’s next,” it’s important to continue embedding already established D&I principles throughout the organization and down into the org chart to ensure consistency.
  • Ensuring D&I isn’t a zero sum game is challenging, and comes with risks: It’s not about “us” vs. “them.” One promising approach we’ve seen is leading with inclusion, especially globally. Focusing on inclusion first allows you to make progress by getting everyone’s attention and shaping behaviors as they relate to inclusivity, while de-prioritizing the baggage that comes with “diversity.” To be clear, every organization will have to get to diversity to see gains from D&I—we need both—but in the meantime you can build a coalition.
  • Many organizations are broadening their definitions of diversity: From socioeconomic to cognitive to neurological to political, D&I leaders are interested in as many employees as possible seeing themselves, their loved ones, and their team members as part of the mix. This doesn’t mean leaving the more traditional focal points of D&I behind—far from it—but expanding the concept can help build a broader coalition to advance inclusion, overcome bias, and ultimately champion the benefits of diversity.

How Should Employers Respond to Members of Their Workforce Who Are Skeptical of D&I Efforts?

Here are some ways that organizations can reach employees who aren’t sold on their diversity strategies:

  • Lead with data: There are so many fact-based and quantitative approaches available to prove that D&I matters to business outcomes.
  • Go micro: Look to leaders and teams to serve as building blocks of inclusion. In our recent Creating Inclusive Leaders study, we saw that teams with both higher average inclusion climates and more consistently defined inclusive climates across their teams performed, on average, 6 percent better than teams with more variable inclusion climates. So, it’s not just about the overall quality of your D&I approach: Consistency matters. We also saw that among these more inclusive teams, the more diverse teams had better performance yet. We need different opinions to fuel innovation and represent our customers. But then also follow with individuals. (CEB Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Council members can watch our webinar on the Creating Inclusive Leaders study here.)
  • When data isn’t enough, connecting employees to broaden their horizons will make them better employees and better leaders: Syngenta, for example, enables difference-based mentoring, matching mentors and mentees who have something in common, but also differ in gender, country of origin, or other characteristics, making it more likely that mentor/mentee networks will truly broaden networks and perceptions and bring diversity to life.

Furthermore, CEB Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Council members can use our executive training materials to encourage leaders to think about the impact of bias on business outcomes and strategize new ways to improve workforce diversity and foster inclusion.