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Google's Awkward Week Offers a Teachable Moment to Us All

The story that broke this past weekend about an internal document authored by a Google employee calling the company’s culture (specifically, its approach to diversity and inclusion) into question, doesn’t seem to be going away. That says a lot in a news cycle that includes worrisome talk of ballistic missiles, military strikes on U.S. territories, and FBI raids in DC.

Described in terms such as incendiary memo, divisive screed, and misogynistic manifesto, the document was shared internally at Google by its author before it was shared anonymously to media outlets such as Gizmodo and VICE Media, publisher of VICE News and Motherboard, via its SecureDrop, which promises that  individuals can share confidential and proprietary documents without leaving a discoverable trail. 

Gizmodo’s publication of the document, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” lit the fuse on a fast-growing controversy, spurring Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, to respond by emailing a memo to employees and posting it to Google’s website.

Pichai denounced the views expressed by (now former) employee James Damore, stating that while some of the issues raised were fair fodder for debate, other comments constituted a violation of Google’s Code of Conduct, because they argued that women are biologically ill-suited for engineering work, which Google considers destructive gender stereotyping, specifically:

“To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”

In quick succession, Google’s recently hired VP of Diversity, Integrity & Governance, Danielle Brown, also published a statement, noting,

“Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions. But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.”

The mess at Google isn’t the first of its type, and it won’t be the last. Every time something like this happens, I picture executives at other organizations sharing a discreet “Whew! Better-them-than-us” moment in the elevator. But it’s only a matter of time before another company is sweating under the spotlight of intense scrutiny and steadily increasing public outrage stoked by social media.

In an era in which leaders are urged to get out in front of controversy, acknowledge it, and deal with the fallout quickly, some say Google’s leadership did the right thing in issuing statements from both the CEO and the head of diversity and moving swiftly to terminate Damore’s employment.

“Google did exactly the right thing in firing him. He violated their code of conduct, and like any company, they’re allowed to take action,” said Kara Swisher, technology journalist and co-founder of Recode, yesterday on MSNBC.

But others say that Google’s leadership acted too hastily, and missed an opportunity to have a deeper conversation about diversity of thought and what that means (and I suspect that some people—no matter their opinion—weighing in on the issue haven’t even read Damore’s memo). If you’re interested, you can read it here.

This is a moment that should remind leaders to take a step back and consider the cultures of their organizations and how they communicate values to their employees and customers every day, says Kevin Wilde, former Chief Learning Officer at General Mills and i4cp strategic advisor. “Leaders need to have fully thought-out points of view on these issues ahead of time so that they can respond in a measured, consistent way. Does an inclusive culture mean it’s okay to say or write whatever you want? This is a discussion leaders need to have,” says Wilde.

Some diversity leaders who have spoken about this incident with i4cp this week suggest that the Damore memo may be the manifestation of a larger and common issue—that of the tendency of some organizations to approach diversity as a matter of counting heads rather than creating truly inclusive environments that make everyone feel safe in expressing their opinions. 

Some say that Google’s new VP of D&I missed an opportunity to create a truly open dialogue. “You can’t create a program unless you know how people truly feel.  A senior-level engineer took a step and expressed his feelings.  Regardless of whether or not you agree with it, he has to feel safe in expressing an opinion that differs from the majority,” one Chief Diversity Officer said.

There’s a lot we don’t know about what transpired at Google; there may well be more to the story the public isn’t privy to that might explain the move to fire Damore so quickly.  Had he experienced other issues at work? How much of Damore’s writing and the response to it on the part of the public has been influenced by other events or factors? Has the steady stream of news stories coming out about harassment and rampant sexism in tech firms contributed to some of the reaction?

In an interview with the host of a conservative YouTube talk show this week, a soft-spoken Damore said he felt compelled to talk about what he perceived to be hypocrisy after attending what he described as “a non-recorded, secretive diversity workshop” in which he says he was “shamed” for voicing alternate ideas to what was being discussed. Afterwards, while on a 12-hour flight to Asia, he wrote the piece as an exercise to get his thoughts together on the experience and fill his flight time. He says he shared the document freely within Google starting well over a month ago, and that his colleagues responded with rational discussion and debate, but things exploded when the memo went public. 

If Damore’s firing was based solely on the memo he authored and the public reaction to it once it surfaced publicly, Google may have indeed passed the pop quiz but failed the final exam. By taking swift action to deal with a PR mess, is Google missing the point of the need to address the idea that some of their employees may believe that different ideas and perspectives are not safe to express?

If the latter is the case, says Joe Santana, Chair of i4cp’s Chief Diversity Officer Board, they may be ignoring the real problem.

“It’s possible that while addressing the surface PR challenge, all they may have accomplished is to drive others who share Mr. Damore's opinions and views underground, changing only their covert behavior while they continue to present quiet but powerful and unchecked overt resistance. The end result is status quo, unimpressive diversity and inclusion hiring continues unabated, while they claim they take real action to support their D&I position.”

Some questions to ponder:

  • Is expectation of total conformity with stated corporate values anathema to creating true inclusion?
  • Where is the boundary between opinion and action, and how should it be enforced?
  • How are those boundaries established? What’s crossing the line?  
  • How do organizations address dissonance if the expression of dissent is a fireable offense?
  • Where does this discussion end and considerations of damage to PR, productivity, and culture begin?
  • How do we facilitate the discussion of differing viewpoints in mutually respectful, effective ways?
  • How are the terms diversity and inclusion defined in your organization and are they truly reflective of the culture?
  • Are the definitions of those terms open to refinement in your organization over time?

We know from our research at i4cp that companies that have developed cultures with deeply rooted and clearly reinforced values are more effective, more agile, and more likely to attract top talent. And highly agile organizations are 10X more likely to embed five specific values into their cultures: innovation, transparency, creativity, collaboration, and diversity. 

And our research into leadership behaviors reinforces the importance of an inclusive culture. In assessing the significance of 19 leadership behaviors, we found two that have the greatest impact on D&I success, suggesting that: leaders should seek awareness of differences and take action to establish relationships that bridge gaps and build understanding of those differences. This doesn’t happen effectively in haste.

A final thought: Just this month, the Harvard Business Review published a story titled “Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage,” which highlights new approaches to recruiting and managing talent that has the technical skills so many companies need, but may be lacking in the social skills requisite to make it through the hiring process and functioning well in a team setting. This challenges leaders to rethink their styles of management and shift toward placing individuals in the context of all their strengths and abilities, especially in tech roles. “The tech industry has a history of hiring oddballs. The talented nerd who lacks social graces has become a cultural icon, as much a part of the industry mythos as the company that starts in a garage,” the co-authors noted. 

The article goes on to cite SAP’s neurodiversity hiring program as a beacon in this area:

“SAP uses a metaphor to communicate this idea across the organization: People are like puzzle pieces—irregularly shaped. Historically, companies have asked employees to trim away their irregularities, because it’s easier to fit people together if they are all perfect rectangles. But that requires employees to leave their differences at home—differences firms need to innovate.”

Transforming an organization’s culture takes time and consideration and it’s often as much about unlearning as it is about learning. Part of this requires having uncomfortable conversations and taking the time to engage in critical thinking. We’re not going to always get it right. Even when we move decisively with every intention to do the right thing, we will fail, and sometimes that failure will be very painful and public. Clearly, there’s more work to do, for all of us.

Lorrie Lykins is i4cp’s managing editor and director of research services.

Lorrie Lykins
Lorrie is i4cp's Vice President of Research. A thought leader, speaker, and researcher on the topic of gender equity, Lorrie has decades of experience in human capital research. Lorrie’s work has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other renowned publications.