Earlier this year, “Google Memo Guy” made headlines — and sparked controversy — with a 10-page diatribe against his company’s diversity initiatives.
In the viral document (which you can read here, if you missed it) software engineer James Damore criticizes what he feels are discriminatory means to achieve greater gender diversity, and writes that making software engineering more people-oriented, and providing more opportunities for employees to work part-time, could be better ideas.
Many people called his memo sexist and anti-diversity, though Damore himself kicked it off saying he values diversity and inclusion and doesn’t deny that “sexism exists.”
Still, the letter’s tone — including lines like “men and women biologically differ in many ways” — didn’t sit well with everyone, including the head honchos at Google.
In the end, Damore got the boot. But was firing him the right option?
We went to the experts for their takes on how Google handled the situation, and whether or not there was a better way to deal with Damore’s diatribe.
Yes, Google Memo Guy should’ve been fired
Google had a business — and PR — decision to make, and made the right call, argues Stuart Rudner, employment lawyer and mediator and founder of Rudner Law.
Since diversity was set as a core policy, and a key part of the company’s identity, the optics of an employee who rejected the policy at its core aren’t ideal, he says.
“It’s completely inconsistent with their brand, and since this was so public, you had everybody waiting to see how Google would respond,” he explains. “If they didn’t take action that was significant enough, that would damage their identity.”
Rudner likened it to Ontario’s Hydro One firing an employee who made vulgar on-air comments to a Toronto television reporter back in the summer of 2015. Video footage of that interaction also went viral, prompting public outcry.
“What everyone remembers is that Hydro One took action right away and sent a very strong signal that they will not tolerate that kind of conduct,” he says.
No, Google made the wrong call
Lisa Kay, president and lead consultant at Peak Performance Human Resources Corp., argues that everybody is entitled to their opinions, and while Damore may have crossed a line by criticizing his company’s policy in such a public manner, firing him wasn’t the way to go.
A conversation to address his concerns would’ve been a better option, she says, even if he violated a code of conduct. “I believe in giving somebody at least one opportunity to correct themselves,” Kay says.
By terminating Damore, it seemed like an effort to silence him, she adds.
“A better approach may have been to address his comments specifically and provide factual information to dispute what he’s saying and why, what efforts they’re making to improve diversity within the organization.”
Kay says it’s not about whether Damore is right or wrong in his assessment, but that Google could’ve used this as an opportunity to spark more discussion — rather than simply letting their polarizing employee go.
Google still has work to do (and what we can learn)
Now that the dust has settled, Google’s senior leaders ought to have a discussion about hiring and promotions, and articulate to employees the qualities they’re looking for, says Alison Konrad, a professor of organizational behavior at the Richard Ivey School of Business.
“Increasing transparency on these issues is clearly vitally important to improving the sense of fairness,” she says.
This is particularly crucial given the industry-wide “affirmative action angst,” Konrad argues, which offers a lesson for other companies as well.
Explaining hiring and promotion philosophy and practices — and providing early career employees with regular guidance about building a personal career path — could boost the sense of inclusion and fairness for everyone.