CBC is Schizophrenic Over Google Memo

diversity-googleThe CBC published two opinion pieces yesterday on the leaked Google “echo chamber” memo: Google axing someone for mouthing off in a memo was not a smart move; and Google delivered an important message by firing its employee for his diversity screed. I’m going to summarize both, starting with “not a smart move”:

The first thing that needs to be said about Google’s decision to fire an employee who wrote an internal memo criticizing the company’s diversity initiatives is: fair enough. Management choosing to let go a worker whose attitude conflicts with the workplace it is trying to establish is a reasonable enough move. And a legal one. As it should be.

I agree. California (unlike BC) does not require just cause to fire, otherwise, Google would likely be in for a law suit. They may still be, as Damore has stated he may, presumably claiming they fired him for blowing the whistle on illegal hiring practices, which is itself illegal in California.

But that doesn’t mean axing someone for mouthing off in a memo is a smart move.

Having read the memo, I find “mouthing off” to be a grossly inaccurate characterization. I do think it is fair to say that he challenged cultural norms.

In a note about the incident, Google CEO Sundar Pichai reassured employees that “[p]eople must feel free to express dissent,” which is a wise position, particularly for a company that thrives on creative innovation. Yet, how can that be the case if voicing an honest, respectfully worded opinion is a fireable offense at Google?

In the words of another famous leader, “Idi Amin will cherish your right to free speech but cannot guarantee your rights after free speech”.

Critics of the memo — who are said to include a whole lot of insulted female Google employees — would insist that stereotypes are exactly what Damore put to paper when he suggested that biology, rather than just bias, is a significant reason why women are underrepresented in tech jobs.

And yet he backed up his claims with detailed references (which were–possibly maliciously–removed by Gizmodo), and they do not.

And don’t get the hater-haters started on Damore’s supposedly unscientific summaries of the differences between male and female personalities.

Clearly they haven’t read The Google Memo: Four Scientists Respond.

If the question is whether a lot of people would disagree with Damore, the answer is certainly “yes.” But saying things many people disagree would with is not necessarily a bad quality in an employee.

Especially if they happen to be right. Jim Collins defines a leader as someone who climbs a tree and shouts “wrong way”.

As [Damore] explained somewhat defensively in the memo: “Despite what the public response seems to have been, I’ve gotten many personal messages from fellow Googlers expressing their gratitude for bringing up these very important issues which they agree with but would never have the courage to say or defend because of our shaming culture and the possibility of being fired.”

In an authoritarian culture, one dissident may represent the opinions of the majority.

Anyhow, sincere open debate can be a boon for a business (or a family, or a society, or a country) if it’s embarked upon civilly and with constructive intent.

And Damore’s memo was civil and constructive.

You can’t decide what’s right if you’re not willing to consider – at least for a moment – what you’re sure is wrong.

You will never realize when you’re wrong if you suppress any opinion that is not your own. How many companies have gone down because CEOs surrounded themselves with “yes men”?

It’s not a viable business strategy to be constantly engaged in petty arguments with combative employees, but substantively re-examining a policy believed to beyond reproach – such as diversity initiatives – at an employee’s earnest urging can be a good thing, even if only to force management to freshly articulate why the policy is so important, rather than letting it become stale dogma.

I’m going to part ways with the author here. I believe that Google has decided that diversity is a core value. That means that anyone who doesn’t hold diversity as a core value will be ejected from the company like a virus. The question is, is diversity a good core value to hold? Personally, I have nothing against diversity, but, like Damore, I hold meritocracy as a core value. I want to work with the best, man or woman, regardless of race.

How many good management books are there out there that advise hubris over humility?

Doing so would make a management book bad; so none.

“On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways,” Damore wrote (and it’s hard to argue with him on that). “These differences aren’t just socially constructed…. Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.”

In other words, collectives do not define their members.

A lot of women who thought Damore was wrong expressed themselves forcefully and convincingly on Twitter; giving some of these women a platform – perhaps a Google town hall debate with Damore – could have done more good for workplace culture than giving Damore a pink-slip has done.

I didn’t see any convincing comments; most seemed to be entirely fact free. But that doesn’t matter if, as I believe, diversity is truly a core value at Google. While mere practices are subject to debate and change, core values are not, nor should they be.

This isn’t unlawful censorship, it’s business. But it does make you wonder how well business – and the rest of society – will do in the future given how poor we have all become at speaking civilly about controversial issues.

There is nothing wrong with holding core values that aren’t up for debate. The question is, do your core values work for you? For example, excellence has always served me well. I’m not open to the idea that excellence is not something that I should value.

Now I’ll move on to the second piece, “Google delivered an important message…”:

It’s hard to believe that this is up for discussion, but yes: the firing of James Damore, the Google engineer who penned an internal memo attacking the company’s diversity initiatives, is 100 per cent justified.

If you hold diversity as a core value, and someone criticizes it, they will never fit in at your company.

On the surface, his firing seems to confirm the exact situation he criticized in this so-called manifesto, namely that Google had become intolerant of perspectives outside of the oppressive boundaries of political correctness.

It does confirm it. Not allowing criticism of diversity is the very definition of political correctness. Calling his memo a “manifesto” or a “screed” will not change this.

First off, Damore displayed a complete lack of judgement by writing and circulating the memo. He was surely fully aware of the type of uproar it could cause — it indeed stirred up such a storm that Google’s CEO had to come back from vacation to deal with the backlash — but decided to publish it anyway, with seemingly little regard for how it would reflect on the company, which has struggled to get more women in technical and leadership jobs.

I agree. He was aware of what could happen, and said as much in his memo.

Google affords its employees more freedom than do most companies, trusting that its hiring process will weed out all those who would use that freedom in destructive ways. So when an employee shows himself capable of such an egregious lapse in judgement — posting something sure to cause massive internal and external uproar — he’s gotta go.

There are companies (Intel, for instance) that thrive on conflict and debate, where a memo like this probably wouldn’t have caused anyone to bat an eyelid. Google is not one of them.

Moreover, Damore’s memo appeared to violate Google’s own code of conduct, which states that, “Googlers are expected to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias, and unlawful discrimination.” A document that outlines how women are biologically less able compared to men to handle technical and leadership roles is clearly in violation of that expectation.

Yet, as Damore pointed out, he felt people who did not believe in the core values were being harassed and intimidated, and that there were programs that unlawfully discriminated on the basis of race and gender.

Even if the post itself didn’t constitute unlawful discrimination, it was certainly a masterclass in encouraging biased thinking.

I would say Damore was trying to encourage unbiased thinking. But, like all of us, he had his own biases (as clearly the author of this piece does).

Beyond just breaking the rules, Damore’s document has the potential to erode the psychological safety of the women at Google. Yonatan Zunger, a former Google exec, said it best in his mic-drop response to the document: “Do you understand that at this point, I could not in good conscience assign anyone to work with you? …You have just created a textbook hostile workplace environment.”

Anyone whose “psychological safety” is threatened by an opinion that differs from theirs is unlikely to succeed in this world. Zunger is slightly more cogent than the author, if you consider attacking a company’s core values hostile. I would have phrased it “your values are antithetical to ours”.

Most women understand how extremely stressful it is having to work with people who don’t think you’re capable of doing your job. And for the number of times Damore references the concept of psychological safety in his writing, it sort of seems like he doesn’t really know what it even means.

Damore never said women weren’t capable of doing their jobs. He merely stated that on average, they have different strengths and weaknesses than men. I think he understands the concept of psychological safety, but the things that threaten him are entirely different from those that seem to threaten (some of the) people at Google.

A prerequisite of psychological safety on a team is knowing that your coworkers have your back. It is immediately undermined by learning that your colleague believes you got your job due to diversity initiatives that lower the bar for technical work, rather due to your abilities. Yet that’s the message that Damore’s screed delivered.

I agree. Damore’s proposed solutions attempt eliminate these concerns by eliminating the need to lower standards. If bars are not being lowered, Google should make this clear. If they are being compromised, then the values of diversity and meritocracy are in conflict, and problems are to be expected until one or the other is abandoned or removed from the picture.

And if none of the above seem like fireable offences, consider this: the tech industry is riding a big old wave of negative publicity due to its lack of diversity and a handful of scandals that have made people question its treatment of the women.

Scandals are anecdotal. I’d like to see some statistical evidence that there is a systematic problem. If there is none, the best thing is to keep doing what works for your company. People who aren’t happy will leave.

Cynically viewed, firing Damore is a shrewd publicity move on Google’s part that ensures it escapes the heat that Uber experienced from the garbage-fire-bungling of its own PR crisis. And after all, in our era of conscious consumerism, Google probably doesn’t want to find out how deep a “delete Google” campaign could cut.

I don’t believe this for a minute. If Google weren’t sincere in their belief in diversity, they would not have fired Damore for challenging it.

But I like to be a little more hopeful: I think that the zero tolerance approach to the manifesto was meant to send a clear message to the men who genuinely believe that diversity is harming them.

I think it will. And that message is “if you don’t value diversity, don’t work for Google”.

Letting the anti-diversity crusaders know in no uncertain terms that their antics will not be tolerated, not even in the name of free speech, was the right thing to do. Google — and the tech industry as a whole — still has a lot of work to do to ensure fair representation in its ranks, but its decisive action in this case shows it’s willing to rise to the challenge.

Hopefully the rest of the tech industry will focus on what we do best: creating great products that make the world a better place. If Google values diversity, that’s their business, unless their board decides otherwise. Personally, I want to work in a company that hires the best people, no matter who they are.

Advertisements

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
This entry was posted in philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s