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.”
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.
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:
Political polarization has increased significantly in the US in recent years, with these divisions reaching new heights in the lead-up to last November’s election, and they are having an impact on Americans’ ability to concentrate on their jobs. Things haven’t gotten any easier since President Donald Trump took office in January, with multiple studies this year suggesting that employees remain distracted by political news, while many feel increasingly negative or stressed about politics, with detrimental effects on their work.
Pointing to recent Labor Department data showing that US productivity fell slightly in the first quarter of 2017, Quartz’s Michael J. Coren wonders if that has something to do with the political climate:
For HR departments, it feels like a siege. One consultant described it as having the March Madness basketball tournament on all the time, while another is struggling to manage the news notifications flooding employees’ phones. “People are not just concerned about the future of their jobs,” one technology executive told the Washington Post. “They’re concerned about the future of their country. It’s a very difficult environment under which you’re expected to produce creative and innovative ideas. It is a constant, constant topic.”
In the increasingly polarized politics of the US, political tensions have been making their presence felt in the workplace since last year’s presidential campaign season, putting employers in the position of trying to defuse political conflicts that can hurt morale, team cohesion, and productivity. This challenge was not resolved after November’s election—indeed, it then became even more pressing for business leaders to navigate these troubled political waters carefully.
A newly released survey from the American Psychological Association shows that political discussions in the workplace are still having a negative effect on employees, with 26 percent saying they had experienced stress or tension due to such debates. Washington Post columnist Jena McGregor peruses the APA’s findings:
The survey of more than 1,300 employed adults in late February and early March also found that 21 percent said they have felt more cynical and negative at work because of all the political talk, compared with 15 percent in August. And some 40 percent of workers said the divisive, distracting environment has caused at least one negative outcome for them, whether in the form of reduced productivity, poorer work quality, difficulty getting work done, increased hostility in the workplace or having a more negative view of co-workers. In August, just 27 percent said they’d had such a negative outcome. …
Before the election, [David Ballard, the director of the APA’s Center for Organizational Effectiveness,] said, there was little difference in the way political talk on the job was affecting Republicans versus Democrats, and those who identify as liberals or conservatives. But in the more recent survey, there was a big divide when it came to political philosophy: Those who identify as liberals were more likely to feel stressed and tense at work because of political conversations (38 percent said they were) compared with those who identify as moderate or conservative (22 and 21 percent, respectively).
By comparison, a Gallup survey released last week found that employee engagement among Democrats had recovered from an apparent post-election slump—though this does not necessarily contradict the APA’s finding that liberal workers are experiencing increased stress and tension:
The acrimonious political climate of the US today is creating a major distraction for employees throughout the country, but it’s also bound to get some workers in hot water for voicing contentious political views or making unprofessional comments about politics on social media. The Chicago Tribune has now passed along a fresh example of this phenomenon which started last Tuesday during President Donald Trump’s joint speech to Congress:
During the speech, [Daniel] Grilo, at the time a principal at Liberty Advisor Group, tweeted, “Sorry Owens’ wife, you’re not helping yourself or your husband’s memory by standing there and clapping like an idiot. Trump just used you.” Grilo was referring to Carryn Owens, whose husband, Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, was killed during a January raid that targeted an al-Qaida stronghold in Yemen. Owens attended the president’s speech and cried as Trump acknowledged her and the audience applauded.
The tweet sparked a firestorm not only on Twitter, but on several social networks including 4chan and Reddit, shredding Grilo for his comments. … Despite his apologies, Liberty Advisor Group deleted his profile on their website and dismissed Grilo. “The individual who issued the tweet is no longer affiliated with Liberty. … His comments were inconsistent with the Company’s values and the unyielding respect it has for the members of our Nation’s Armed Forces,” said a statement posted on the company’s website Wednesday.
Grilo isn’t the first employee to be fired because of an ill-advised tweet, nor will he likely be the last, but his case is a lesson in the unique challenges a highly polarized political environment poses for employers and HR. Americans will likely post controversial and inappropriate political comments to their public social media accounts by the millions this year, so forward-thinking HR leaders might consider devising proactive strategies for addressing employees’ controversial social media posts rather than reacting to individual instances (and negative attention they create) as they come. Since last year, political tensions have been running high in the American workplace—a trend that is unlikely to abate anytime soon—and increasingly contentious and divisive politics is just one aspect of the uncertain business environment companies are facing in 2017.