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.