A few weeks ago I wrote a column arguing that it is fair game to talk about politics at work. The crux of my argument was that, at a time of deep political division in our country, it’s important for people to feel safe discussing their views with co-workers since there is such a heavy link between politics and business. This would go a long way, I wrote, toward hashing out difficult issues and finding a unified way forward, as long as the conversations were measured and productive.
So you can imagine my reaction when, over this past weekend, a male Google engineer published an internal memo describing his viewpoints on why there were more men in technology and leadership positions than women, and that the way Google’s current diversity programs are designed — and most corporate diversity programs, for that matter — are misguided, ineffective and unfair.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the memo leaked to the press, creating a firestorm of media criticism calling it an “anti-diversity” manifesto. On Tuesday, Google fired the engineer, who is now threatening legal action.
If you read the memo, the engineer says his point was to raise awareness of a strong pro-left bias in Silicon Valley and Google, to bring new viewpoints to light and to argue different ways of promoting diversity in tech and leadership. The memo, which spans about 10 pages, including footnotes to research supporting his views, actually states that the engineer is a staunch believer in diversity and wants to improve representation, both at Google and in general.
However, by arguing that there were inherent nonbias-based “biological” differences between men and women that partly explained why there were fewer women in engineering and leadership positions, the engineer quickly found himself in hot water.
The engineer goes on to write that diversity programs that single out certain minority groups, and hiring practices that aim to bolster minority and gender representation in certain roles, are divisive and unfair. He wrote this in a measured, polite tone with continued assurances that his goal was to make Google a better place to work by offering what he sees as an underrepresented view on how to improve diversity and inclusion in Silicon Valley. He pointed out that his view was not that all men and women differ in the ways he described, or that he thought such differences were “just.”
The media quickly brushed past the memo’s nuance, interpreting the engineer’s view as saying men are biologically superior to women. I encourage you to read the memo yourself and develop your own opinion of it.
I won’t defend the engineer’s firing. Google can hire and fire whomever it wants for whatever reason it wants. And given the public nature of the memo’s distribution and the fact that Google — and Silicon Valley in general — has been under scrutiny for its lack of a diverse workforce, I can understand why Google may have felt that firing him was its only option.
I also won’t defend the writing of the memo itself. While I don’t agree with everything the engineer wrote, I do think his desire to speak out and raise the viewpoint — however unpopular it might be — should be tolerated, if not applauded. His mistake was probably in how he went about doing it. Distributing an internal memo on such a sensitive topic widely throughout Google probably wasn’t the best venue for this sort of discussion, especially considering the high likelihood that it would become public, misunderstood and attacked.
If his goal was to remain employed at Google while bringing these views to light, then the engineer probably should have chosen a different outlet, something that would’ve ensured the conversation stayed within Google’s walls. Maybe he thought his memo would accomplish this. Obviously, he was wrong.
Either way, the lesson shouldn’t be to proclaim that politics is off-limits at work, although I’m sure many will feel compelled to voice this opinion in light of this week’s events. The lesson is that these types of conversations are inherently difficult and uncomfortable, and if companies want to create what they consider a psychologically safe place for employees at work, then they need to ensure that there are venues for these types of polite, measured viewpoints to be discussed internally in a respectable manner.
You or I may not agree with the arguments and views advanced by this particular Google engineer. That’s not really the point. The point is that this is one employee who wanted to have a hard conversation about a prominent social and cultural issue in the workplace that he felt was negatively influencing his work experience, and given the prevailing notion around authenticity and inclusiveness at work, felt it was appropriate for him to do so.
Google denied him that opportunity and may have had legitimate business reasons for doing so. Still, in a time when business leaders go out of their way to promote authenticity and inclusiveness in the workplace, the episode is a tough pill to swallow.
This is especially the case because the engineer is probably not alone. As a result, business leaders need to do some soul searching into how to handle a similar situation, because they never know when it’s going to pop up. Either these types of conversations are fair game at work or they’re not. If they’re not, even though I disagree, then leaders need to be explicit in communicating it. If they are, then leaders need to ensure that such conversations remain a two-way street.
Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.