James Damore, a former Google engineer, was fired last August after circulating a memo in which he argued that men predominate in software engineering because they are more biologically inclined toward analytical thinking than women; decried the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts as reflecting an “authoritarian” and “extreme” ideology; and claimed that Googlers with conservative political views were shamed, shunned, and silenced for expressing their opinions. Damore cried foul over his termination and subsequently filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, then, along with another employee, later sued Google, claiming that the tech giant discriminated against white men.
The NLRB complaint was withdrawn later in January, ostensibly so that Damore and his lawyer Harmeet Dhillon could focus on the discrimination suit. But a newly disclosed letter written days earlier by Jayme Sophir, associate general counsel of the NLRB’s division of advice, concludes that Google had every right to fire Damore over the contents of the memo, Adi Robertson reports at the Verge:
In her analysis, Sophir writes that employers should be given “particular deference” in trying to enforce anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, since these are tied to legal requirements. And employers have “a strong interest in promoting diversity” and cooperation across different groups of people. Because of this, “employers must be permitted to ‘nip in the bud’ the kinds of employee conduct that could lead to a ‘hostile workplace,’” she writes. “Where an employee’s conduct significantly disrupts work processes, creates a hostile work environment, or constitutes racial or sexual discrimination or harassment, the Board has found it unprotected even if it involves concerted activities regarding working conditions.” …
The 2107 edition of the Women in the Workplace report, released on Tuesday by Lean In and McKinsey, finds that “women’s progress is slow—and may even be stalling—in part because many employees and companies fail to understand the magnitude of the problem.” The report, which is based on pipeline data from 222 companies employing more than 12 million people, shows that women remain underrepresented at every level, and women and color are even worse off:
Only one in five C-suite leaders is a woman, and fewer than one in thirty is a woman of color. This disparity is not due to company-level attrition or lack of interest: women and men stay at their companies and ask for promotions at similar rates. Company commitment to gender diversity is at an all-time high for the third year in a row, but this commitment isn’t changing the numbers. The report points to a simple reason: we have blind spots when it comes to diversity, and we can’t solve problems that we don’t see or understand clearly.
Lean In and McKinsey find that corporate America has made little progress toward gender parity since last year’s report, which found that for every 100 women promoted past entry level positions, 130 men were promoted, and that women were less likely to be given challenging assignments, included in meetings, or afforded opportunities to interact with senior leaders. This year’s report focuses on the thorny issue that while these problems are not getting better, many Americans (particularly men) believe they have already been solved:
Many employees think women are well represented in leadership when they see only a few. Nearly 50 percent of men think women are well represented in leadership in companies where only one in ten senior leaders is a woman. And remarkably, a third of women agree. It is hard to imagine a groundswell of change when many employees don’t see anything wrong with the status quo. …
Mindful of the risk of alienating allies and the potential backlash against diversity and inclusion, some organizations have recently been rethinking and retooling their D&I efforts to be “colorblind”—i.e., to de-emphasize demographic differences and attempt to achieve greater inclusion by removing spaces created for employees of specific, underrepresented demographics. Reacting to this trend, and specifically Deloitte’s controversial decision to do away with employee resource groups, Paradigm founder and CEO Joelle Emerson lays out the case against colorblindness at the Harvard Business Review:
The negative impact of colorblindness on organizations and individual employees has been well documented. Downplaying demographic differences reduces the engagement of underrepresented employees and increases their perceptions of bias from their white colleagues. Moreover, the cognitive load of attempting to appear colorblind when we all, of course, do notice difference can ironically result in more biased behaviors from white employees, or lead them to avoid the intergroup collaborations that can spark innovation and enrich their work. Colorblindness is a quantifiably ineffective inclusion strategy for individuals and organizations. Multiculturalism, the opposite of colorblindness, stresses recognition and inclusion of group differences and has been shown to benefit minority employees and organizations at large. …
If both ally engagement and designated spaces for discrete populations are important, what’s the solution? Efforts need not be either-or. In fact, the most effective ones must do both.
Emerson is not the first critic to question Deloitte’s approach to ERGs along these lines. Before going down the road of ERGs entirely, organizations can consider other ways to make them more inclusive while also ensuring that they still primarily focus on the needs of underrepresented employees. If the challenge they face with ERGs is involving allies, particularly white men, leaders can consider opening up these groups to allies rather than abolishing them.
In our D&I research at CEB (now Gartner), we have also seen organizations questioning colorblindness (and gender-blindness) in making decisions on performance reviews and succession management.
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.”
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.
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A senior software engineer at Google set off a firestorm last week with a ten-page letter circulated on an internal mailing list that quickly went viral within the company. In a memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” which Gizmodo has published in full, the employee argues that men predominate in software engineering because of biological differences between men and women; that Google’s diversity and inclusion efforts reflect an “extreme,” “authoritarian,” and “leftist” ideology; and that employees who express conservative political beliefs or different viewpoints on the merits of diversity are shamed into silence. Motherboard’s Louise Matsakis, who broke the story on Saturday, reported that the letter was widely condemned within the Google community, but has also raised questions over how many men at Google—particularly in leadership positions—share the author’s views on gender:
The 10-page Google Doc document was met with derision from a large majority of employees who saw and denounced its contents, according to the employee. But Jaana Dogan, a software engineer at Google, tweeted that some people at the company at least partially agreed with the author; one of our sources said the same. … “The broader context of this is that this person is perhaps bolder than most of the people at Google who share his viewpoint—of thinking women are less qualified than men—to the point he was willing to publicly argue for it. But there are sadly more people like him,” the employee who described the document’s contents to me said. …
Motherboard has independently confirmed with multiple Google employees that the document is being widely shared among many of the company’s software engineering teams: “If I had to guess, almost every single woman in engineering has seen it,” the current employee told Motherboard; a separate current employee told me it was being actively read by many employees.
The explosive emergence of this letter presents the first major challenge for Google’s new Vice President of Diversity, Integrity & Governance, Danielle Brown, who was only just hired at the end of June. In a statement sent to all Google employees, Brown reasserted the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, gently criticized the letter for advancing “incorrect assumptions about gender,” and disputed the assertion that Google is intolerant of minority political viewpoints:
Employee resource groups, which create spaces for members of historically disadvantaged or minority communities to come together in support of each other and to help leadership understand and respond to their unique challenges and concerns, are a cornerstone of diversity and inclusion practices at some organizations. Yet there is also a growing understanding among D&I leaders that the most effective initiatives are inclusive in the broadest sense, involving everyone in the organization, not only those in specific affinity groups.
That’s why we’re seeing more inclusion campaigns focused on cultivating allies and helping members of more privileged demographics recognize their own unconscious biases. When the Harvard Business Review devoted an entire issue to D&I last year, it focused heavily on the challenge of getting everyone on board with diversity without courting backlash.
In a controversial move, Deloitte has decided to take this shift toward a more broad-based approach one step further by eliminating ERGs altogether in favor of groups whose membership is not limited to specific demographics, Jeff Green reported recently at Bloomberg:
After 24 years, WIN, the women’s initiative at Deloitte, will end. Over the next 18 months the company will also phase out Globe, which supports gay employees, and groups focused solely on veterans or minority employees. In their place will be so-called inclusion councils that bring together a variety of viewpoints to work on diversity issues. …
“We are turning it on its head for our people,” says Deepa Purushothaman, who’s led the WIN group since 2015 and is also the company’s managing principal for inclusion. Deloitte will still focus on gender parity and underrepresented groups, she says, but not in the same way it has for the past quarter-century, in part because millennial employees—who make up 57 percent of Deloitte’s workforce—don’t like demographic pigeonholes.