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.
James Damore, a senior software engineer at Google who was fired from his job on Monday after circulating a ten-page memo criticizing the company’s diversity efforts and making disputed claims about the biological differences between men and women, has said he is exploring his legal options for challenging his termination, and will likely take action against his former employer, the New York Times reports:
“I have a legal right to express my concerns about the terms and conditions of my working environment and to bring up potentially illegal behavior, which is what my document does,” Mr. Damore said. … Before being fired, Mr. Damore said, he had submitted a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board claiming that Google’s upper management was “misrepresenting and shaming me in order to silence my complaints.” He added that it was “illegal to retaliate” against an N.L.R.B. charge.
However, it’s not at all clear that Damore has a legal leg to stand on, Reuters adds:
Nonunion or “at will” employees, such as most tech workers, can be fired in the US for a wide array of reasons that have nothing to do with performance. The US National Labor Relations Act guarantees workers, whether they are in a union or not, the right to engage in “concerted activities” for their “mutual aid or protection.” Damore, though, would most likely face an uphill fight to seek that protection based on his memo, said Alison Morantz, a Stanford University law professor with expertise in labor law.
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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: