Google under the microscope as it fires author of controversial diversity memo

SUMMARY:

The Google diversity debacle just took a fresh turn as the company fires the controversial memo’s author.

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Sundar Pichai – CEO Google

Multiple reports say that Google has fired the engineer who wrote a long and controversial memo on diversity. From Bloomberg:

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.”

In an email obtained by recode, Sundar Pichai, CEO Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company is quoted saying:

…portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace. Our job is to build great products for users that make a difference in their lives. To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK. It is contrary to our basic values and our Code of Conduct, which expects “each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination.”

It is important to note that Pichai attempted to balance his position with:

People must feel free to express dissent. So to be clear again, many points raised in the memo — such as the portions criticizing Google’s trainings, questioning the role of ideology in the workplace, and debating whether programs for women and underserved groups are sufficiently open to all — are important topics. The author had a right to express their views on those topics — we encourage an environment in which people can do this and it remains our policy to not take action against anyone for prompting these discussions.

Regardless, the original memo is now at the center of what will be a defining moment for Google and, possibly many other companies whether in technology or not.

No choice?

In my first analysis of the memo, I argued that Danielle Brown, Google’s chief diversity officer had shut down the memo’s author. Looking at the situation from that perspective and having disavowed the memo in strong terms, Pichai had little choice but to support Ms Brown, hence Damore’s dismissal.

There will be plenty of debate about whether that was the correct course of action at this time. I am not so sure. It may well be that Damore’s tenure at Google was untenable and especially given his strong position on issues of ideology inside Google. But that doesn’t mean Google acted entirely correctly. Regardless, there will be plenty who see Damore’s removal as a necessary first step towards fixing what must now be seen as a critical problem. with all the potential for harm contained in kryptonite.

It will be easy for example, for those who lean towards Damore’s general position, to argue that what is already characterized as dissent, no longer carries credible weight in discussion going forward. And to that extent, Pichai’s email doesn’t say whether Google will look for remedies to the points he views as valid. On the other hand, Mashable reports considerable push back among potential recruits who worry they may be entering a toxic environment. In the copmetition for talent, Google doesn’t want to appear anything other than THE best place to work.

Unsurprisingly, Pichai cut short a planned family vacation to handle what must be a spiraling  crisis inside the company, requiring top level engagement and action.

Where to next?

Lowering the temperature inside Google must be the first order of business along with repeated affirmation that Code of Conduct violations cannot be tolerated but that freedom to express concerns remains something that Google values.

From there, it is all about picking apart the Damore memo and figuring out how to tackle the points which are considered valid while ensuring the unacceptable parts are handled firmly but without rancor. Some points may prove intractable for the time being, but unless there is a concerted effort to address concerns, Google runs the risk of being accused of everything from tokenism to neglect.

The difficulty is that words matter and especially when committed to a document. How Google assembles the ‘right’ words such that everyone is satisfied will be a Herculean task.

Image credit - Story image via Google, kryptonite via YouTube

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