Diversity & Inclusion

Firestorm over Google memo putting ‘diversity of thought’ in spotlight

What was meant to be an internal memo written by a male engineer at Google hit the internet in a big way in early August, igniting controversy that led to the employee’s firing and much discussion about the effectiveness of corporate diversity efforts.  Business people looking for ideas

The now-infamous memo raises questions on many fronts. Among them: Does it make the company vulnerable to claims from women that they endure a hostile work environment? Does it expose the company to legal action from the engineer who was fired? Andin a different veindoes it raise questions about corporate culture that go beyond legal concerns and focus on a type of diversity that’s beginning to gain more attentiondiversity of thought?

The part of engineer James Damore’s memo getting the most attention centers on his claim that biological and psychological characteristics of women make them unsuited for tech jobs and, therefore, Google’s diversity program is ineffective.

Damore was fired soon after the memo gained wide distribution, and he has reportedly filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over his firing. Google CEO Sundar Pichai explained the decision to fire him by saying part of the memo violated the company’s code of conduct and advanced harmful gender stereotypes.

Gaining ‘diverse’ diversity

The term diversity once centered just on characteristics related to race, ethnicity, and gender, but now many are also focusing on diversity of thought as a way to benefit from the various traits different people bring to the workplace. That thinking can lead to positive change, according to Brad Federman, chief operating officer for F&H Solutions Group, a human resources consulting firm in Memphis, Tennessee.

“Diversity of thought is truly important, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to sustain in many companies,” Federman says. “We have lost the art of conversation. Most people want to be right and alienate people in the process.”

Both the memo and the reaction to it show an inability to appreciate thought diversity, according to Federman. “The response to the Google engineer’s memo regarding women was presented in the news and publicly in a manner that was uniquely different than what was actually written,” he says, stressing that he in no way supports the content of the memo. “In fact I think there were personal opinions written in there as fact.”

Because of the way the topic was addressed, however, Federman says Google lost an opportunity. “It’s through conflict that we solve problems,” he says. The conflict could have been more constructive if the engineer had thought more carefully about how to share his message and if the public had been more thoughtful about reading the document “rather than listening to sensationalized headlines and pundits that come in with an agenda and editorialize what happened,” he said.

“Again, I am in no way defending that person’s memo, but the aftermath that occurred was a lost opportunity,” Federman says. “Imagine having a real conversation. What new understandings could have been garnered?” He said the engineer might have been changed because of the conversation and transformed from critic to champion of the company’s diversity program.

Legal concerns

Controversy surrounding the memo also brings up legal concerns. For example, at least one person responding to the memo accused the memo writer of creating “a textbook hostile workplace environment.” Amelia Holstrom, an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C. in Springfield, Massachuseetts, says that concern is valid.

“If I were advising Google, I would have some serious concerns about the writer’s ability to objectively review and comment on his female colleagues’ work after reading what he wrote about females in the tech industry in the memo,” Hostrom says. “Had Google simply ignored the memorandum and taken no action to address it, I suspect it would not have been long before the writer’s female colleagues started filing hostile work environment claims against Google and the engineer.”

The fired engineer may present a different kind of legal problem for the company. Reportedly, he has filed a charge with the NLRB claiming his memo is protected by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, which gives employees the right to engage in “protected, concerted activity.”

Jo Ellen Whitney, an attorney with the Davis Brown Law Firm in Des Moines, Iowa, explains that the law allows employees to comment on workplace conditions and employers aren’t allowed to discipline employees for attempting to organize, “and the NLRB has traditionally read that very broadly, allowing commentary on a wide array of work conditions including wages, benefits, supervisors, and similar matters.”

The NLRB charge was a smart move on the memo writer’s part, Whitney says. If he had gone to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an agency charged with promoting equality, it “was likely to look askance at” his complaint.

Tips for designing diversity programs

Although an extreme example, the Google memo uproar shows how diversity programs can spark pushback from employees. Federman says getting support from senior leadership is one key to a successful program, but he also offers other advice.

“My first piece of advice is that companies should be clear about their reasons” for embarking on a diversity program, Federman says, adding that companies should tie diversity and inclusion to the strategic interest of their business. They need to ask questions like:

  • How will diversity improve our bottom line?
  • How will diversity help us gain new and different customers?
  • How will diversity assist us in recruiting better talent and help us to fill positions faster, etc.?

Holstrom also sees ways to make diversity programs successful. “The key is that the program be well thought out, well written, and compliant with state, federal, and local laws,” she says. “It should be reviewed thoroughly by legal counsel prior to its implementation and periodically to look for any problem areas that might give rise to a discrimination or harassment complaint.”