This comes straight from the Someone Left The Irony On Department, as Mad Magazine once wrote. On the one hand, Google insists that “diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company.” On the other, a Google engineer’s memo warns that they have created an ideological “echo chamber” and a “shaming culture,” one which keeps employees silent about the impact of company policies because of the “possibility of being fired.” How did Google rebut this memo? By firing the engineer who wrote it, of course. Bloomberg’s Mark Bergen and Ellen Huet reported on James Damore’s dismissal late last night:
Alphabet Inc.’s Google has fired an employee who wrote an internal memo blasting the web company’s diversity policies, creating a firestorm across Silicon Valley.
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.
Damore’s 10-page memorandum accused Google of silencing conservative political opinions and argued that biological differences play a role in the shortage of women in tech and leadership positions. It circulated widely inside the company and became public over the weekend, causing a furor that amplified the pressure on Google executives to take a more definitive stand.
Holy self-fulfilling prophecies, Batman! In another dollop of irony, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai had earlier condemned the memo as “contrary to our basic values and our Code of Conduct,” but stressed that “people must feel free to express dissent” within Google. I wonder how free they feel now, after Pichai did precisely what Damore wrote employees feared would happen for speaking up about Google’s ideological conformity.
The memo itself seems ill-advised and foolish, not dangerous or even hostile. (The footnotes in particular are hilarious.) Contrary to rumor, it never states that women are “inferior” to men, or that they are biologically unsuited for work in coding, as many appear to have assumed. However, the parts of the memo that do speak on biology are rather silly, presumptive, and largely unsupported — a series of extrapolations based on weak or unfounded assumptions, such as “Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify and act like males.” Often, eh? Got a percentage on that? What exactly was the sample size on the peer-reviewed study of castrated males raised as females? And what exactly does that have to do with women in coding jobs?
However, when it comes to ideological bias at Google, Damore seems to have struck a nerve with his accuracy. “There’s currently very little transparency into the extend [sic] of our diversity programs,” Damore wrote, “which keeps it immune to criticism from those outside its ideological echo chamber.” But ideological bias goes beyond diversity programs, Damore warned. “Google’s political bias has equated the freedom from offense with psychological safety, but shaming into silence is the antithesis of psychological safety. This silencing has created an ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be honestly discussed.”
Damore didn’t know how right he was. And that brings us to what in this memo constituted a firing offense. This wasn’t a public manifesto in which the writer pledged revolution and mutiny, nor did Damore at any point say that he would not work with women or respect their status as equal employees. In fact, Damore’s main concern was that Google treat its employees equally on point of view as well as ethnic and gender bases. It was an ill-considered internal memo, written by someone who seems to think he knows far more than he actually does, but it was clearly intended as a springboard to discuss concerns he honestly holds. Despite Google’s insistence that dissent is valued within the company, that appears to be the only reason within this memo for firing Damore.
How exactly was this a firing offense? Over a period of 15 years, I ran high-pressure alarm call centers in three different locations. Ten of those years were spent at the most recent of those centers, where I had a staff of around 45 employees reporting to me or my subordinates. I rarely had the occasion to fire anyone, and never did so except in cases where they didn’t do their jobs properly on a repeated basis, or they didn’t show up for them on a repeated basis. None of my employers nor myself fired people for their point of view, nor would we have ever considered doing so. As at-will employers, we certainly had the authority to do so — as does Google — but that would have been unethical, unfair, and would have a chilling effect on openness in the work environment.
Speaking of which, some on social media last night claimed that the firing was justified because the memo created a “hostile work environment.” That’s nonsense. Try working in a call center where lives are on the line, and people vent constantly about politics, sports, and their own lives as a means to deal with the stress. Besides, which hostile work environment should we be discussing? The one supposedly created by a leaked internal memo, or the hostile work environment the memo itself describes — and which got corroborated in the firing of its author?
In a sane organization that wasn’t invested in an ideological echo chamber, this memo would have gotten its author a private meeting with a manager or director. Damore would have been, er, counseled to stick to his coding job and leave the biology and sociology to people better suited to discuss them. Google’s overreaction speaks volumes about the accuracy of Damore’s other observations, and to the limits of Google’s commitments to tolerance and diversity.