By Mark F. Kluger and William H. Healey
In its ongoing influence on American workplace culture, Google is struggling with how to deal with diverse views on diversity. Google has been around for 20 years and has taken its place among Band-Aid and Kleenex as a brand name with a dictionary definition and even transformed its name from a noun to a verb. But even the elite have their employment law problems.
Last week, the National Labor Relations Board issued a memo declaring that Google did not violate the National Labor Relations Act by terminating an employee who posted an extensive memo critical of the company’s diversity initiatives. Not surprisingly, Google has these internal forums for employees to blab about how they’re feeling that day. In July 2017, James Damore, a software engineer, posted a 10 page memo explaining that in his view Google had become an “ideological echo chamber” which “sham[ed] into silence diverse views” such as his. Damore’s thesis is that in the tech world, “discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive and bad for business.” Here is where he started to anger the Google Gods: he wrote, “we need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism” and proceeded to describe how men and women differ emotionally, intellectually and psychologically. Do you feel the ice thinning? He said, women do not excel in high stress jobs because they are more neurotic and are prone to higher anxiety levels and lower stress tolerance than men. According to Damore, “This may contribute to higher levels of anxiety women report on the Googlegeist and the lower number of women in high stress jobs.” Googlegeist? Whatever that is, it feels very 1984ish. Are we all required to report to it when we are feeling anxious? So in August 2017, Google fired Danmore for his views on diversity and he filed a Charge with the NLRB claiming that he had a legal right under the NLRA to publicly raise issues with co-workers about the terms and conditions of their employment.
Google HR carefully crafted the talking points for the termination: Your post advanced…offensive gender stereotypes to suggest that women cannot be successful in the same kind of jobs…as men…Our decision is based solely on that part of your post…It is not based in any way on the portions of your post that discuss [Google’s] programs or training or how [Google] can improve its inclusion of differing political views. The NLRB bought into that important distinction and found that Google terminated Damore for the unprotected parts of his post that dealt with gender stereotypes. Because communication among co-workers regarding terms and conditions of employment are typically protected by the NLRA, those clear talking points explaining the basis for the termination were no doubt responsible for Google’s success before the NLRB.
Google’s challenges are not over. In January, Danmore filed a lawsuit claiming that Google discriminated against him because he is a conservative white male. The real challenge for Google will be to preserve its inclusive culture while defending the claims of an employee who expressed a diverse view point on diversity.
Just to make things interesting (and diverse), last week Google was also sued by Tim Chevalier, a disabled, transgender software engineer that Google fired in November 2017, for what he claims were his internal posts attacking Damore’s memo and his views. Google contends that it was just being consistent in the application of its policies. To us, that sounds like an intolerance for intolerance.
So maybe all these internal forums to post your every thought and twinge are not such a great idea. A recent study by the Harvard Business School and the University of Texas across 29 job categories found that 78.1% of those asked, reported having idle time at work and more than 21% said they had enough downtime to be bored. A Robert Half spokesperson reported that the senior managers she deals with claim that most workers are doing nothing for a about 6 hours a week and in higher professional categories she estimates 10.5 hours of dead time. Clearly, this does not include employment lawyers or HR professionals. But there just might be a correlation between downtime and too much workplace chatter resulting in terminations and lawsuits. How about more time spent working and less talking and posting about work. Googlegeist?