Human Resources News & Insights

Firing staffer for ‘gender stereotypes’ memo sets off Google’s free speech nightmare

When Google fired a software engineer over a memo he wrote criticizing the company’s diversity efforts, little did it know it would set off a chain of events that put it smack dab in the middle of a national media frenzy — and an HR nightmare.

The engineer, James Damore, initially published a 10-page memo, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” on the company’s internal message board. Some sites are calling the memo an anti-diversity manifesto,

‘Implicit and explicit biases’ are the cause

The memo, which can be read in its entirety at Gizmodo, included lines like:

“At Google, we’re regularly told that implicit (unconscious) and explicit biases are holding women back in tech and leadership … I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”

When the document was eventually leaked to the press, it was met with a wide array of public reaction, including a significant amount of outrage toward Damore’s stance.

Google wound up firing Damore for the memo, claiming he perpetuated gender stereotypes and violated Google’s code of conduct.

Rather than putting out the fire, the tech giant’s move seemed to fan the flames even further. Now, Damore’s firing has become a rallying cry for free speech advocates, and a number of employment attorneys have even questioned Google’s move.

In an article on Inc., employment attorney Dan Eaton is quoted as saying:

“An employee does not have free reign [sic] to engage in political speech that disrupts the workplace, but punishing an employee for deviating from company orthodoxy on a political issue is not allowed either. Brown [Google’s vice president of diversity, integrity & governance] acknowledged that when she wrote that “an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions.”

Google ‘shouldn’t be surprised’

Following the media coverage, Google had planned a Gender-Diversity Town Hall meeting to discuss some of the issues surrounding Damore and the infamous memo, but Google CEO Sundar Pichai was forced to cancel the meeting when employees voiced safety concerns “and worried they may be ‘outed’ publicly for asking a question in the Town Hall.”

And some experts, such as Evil HR Lady’s Suzanne Lucas, feel the tech giant has no one to blame but itself for the mess it’s stepped into.

As Lucas put it:

“When a company decides to punish an employee for expressing his opinions, they shouldn’t be shocked when other employees are afraid to express their opinions, or even ask questions. Google (to the best of my knowledge) hasn’t ever addressed the issues Damore raised. Instead, they’ve simply said that he’s perpetuating gender stereotypes and violated Google’s code of conduct.”

 

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