Takeaways from ‘the Google memo’

Dismissal of engineer provides lessons on corrosive behaviour, codes of conduct
By Celia Featherby
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/16/2017

The Google “debacle” involving an employee’s memo on diversity, and his subsequent dismissal, caused quite a stir. And David Creelman of Creelman Research provided his opinion in the Sept. 4 issue of Canadian HR Reporter.

I’d like to offer some additional points for HR practitioners to consider, so we can learn from this incident, plan for similar future circumstances, and be proactive inside our own organizations so we are aligned with the relevant laws and human rights legislation.

First, here’s a quick recap: A Google employee, James Damore, wrote and posted on Google’s intranet a 10-page memo to all staff called “Google’s ideological echo chamber” in which he decried Google’s stated commitment to diversity, using information he claimed was drawn from scientific research.

An uproar followed, Damore was fired, and much of the debate has focused on Damore’s personal views and their legitimacy, on his rights to free speech and whether they were violated, and what the role of HR in these situations might be.

HR is typically reluctant to take on situations that involve inflammatory opinion, and this situation appears to have been complicated by the red herring that Damore was ranked as a superior performer — who just happens to perpetuate gender stereotypes on the side — so “Can we please just move forward?” Um, no. There are a number of aspects to this situation, which if we take a moment to step back, will provide a clear and objective way forward for organizations and employees. 

Firstly, Damore was terminated not for holding unusual views but for violating Google’s code of conduct, which at Google and most companies is a condition of employment.

Google might have had little to say if Damore had been discrete in his views and not brought them to work, but he did and he used company resources and company assets to spread a personal opinion that was in direct violation of Google’s stated values and code of conduct. 

The memo also had a negative impact on Google and its corporate reputation, and in those circumstances, Google also had a right to act. Employees are seldom aware that if their behaviour on the job (and often off the job too) has a negative impact on a company’s reputation, there will be consequences. Google was within its rights as an employer to act.

So, does your company have a code of conduct? Is it reviewed with employees regularly? Do they have to sign off on it as a condition of employment? Are expectations for on-the-job behaviour and use of company assets made known at the point of onboarding? Something simple and straightforward can save a lot of heartburn later on.

Secondly, Damore was described as a good performer and this brings me to another aspect of dealing with this situation. How many times has HR been asked to overlook corrosive and destructive behaviour on the job because the perpetrator was a “valued asset” — regardless of the collateral damage he is inflicting on others and the collective drain on collegiality and collaboration? 

And looking ahead to when this employee might end up leading a team and managing people, can direct reports to a manager who states that women are “neurotic” and men have a “higher drive for status and leadership” be truly assured that their performance reviews and bonus recommendations are based on evidence and objective consideration? 

Robert Sutton, professor of management science at the Stanford University School of Engineering in California, has written superbly about the larger impact of tolerating what he calls “asshole” behaviour at work; while a high-performing but corrosive personality is being tolerated, the collective excellence of the rest of that team is squandered and the associated costs to the business and the corporate culture are astonishing.   

Both of these considerations lead to a number of systemic options involving screening of candidates and onboarding. If a company is truly sincere in its commitment to diversity and inclusion, this will not just be stated on the web page and in the job ad, but be key in the hiring process and the onboarding process. 

Candidates will be reminded that there are specific, inclusive behaviours a company must see if any individual hopes to be successful, that it’s not just a matter of being a crackerjack engineer.

So, does your company also screen for soft skills or test for emotional intelligence? Once at work, does your company recognize staff who engage in inclusive and collaborative behaviours?

Eruptions like this can happen at any time, so how do you prepare? Recognize the fact that bias exists, and prepare for how your company wants to respond. Reach out to the human rights commission in your particular province or work with the high-quality information they have available online. Take this information back to your organization and turn it into actionable behaviour. 

You’ll need to look at what your code of conduct says (or doesn’t say) about behavioural expectations. And if you have vague statements like “We will practise mutual respect,” get your employee groups involved in determining what that looks like for them, in real behavioural terms. 

While the Damore memo was embarrassing for Google, it also provides an opportunity to bring these issues to light and talk them through. This won’t be the last time something like this occurs, and we now have a chance to be better prepared for the next time.

Celia Featherby is an HR consultant and was previously the diversity manager and senior development consultant at Hydro One. She can be reached at caf@bell.net.

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