Why Google Firing the Diversity Memo Writer Was the Wrong Call (and Possibly Illegal)

Google got this one wrong. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

By now you’ve likely heard about the “diversity memo” (or “anti-diversity memo,” depending on your interpretation) that went viral inside of Google, outside of the company, and, well, all over the internet.

Google announced on Monday that they fired the author of the memo, James Damore, presumably because portions of his memo violated the company’s code of conduct.

Let me say from the start: I’m a big fan of Google. I’ve spoken there twice and featured some of their people practices in both of my books because they get so much right. Further, any effort to enhance diversity is a noble goal, since research proves diversity makes teams smarter, especially when the efforts are focused on deep-level diversity like personality and values.

However, I believe Google got this one wrong.

For one thing, Damore’s dismissal may actually have been illegal.

One argument is that Damore’s memo represented an attempt to persuade Google to modify certain diversity-related practices and to rally other Googlers to his cause. At a minimum, the memo launched a discussion in which many took positions for and against Damore’s ideas. To the extent that this is considered a discussion about working conditions, the memo and the author are likely protected by federal labor laws, which protect even non-union employees in at-will employment states from retaliation.

A secondary argument is that Damore was challenging the current practices at Google on the basis that those practices themselves were discriminatory. This type of action is likewise protected from retaliation, even if the employee’s challenge is later found untrue and the current practices are found not to be discriminatory. This second argument is an important one, because parts of Damore’s memo, in particularly his inferences about personality differences, are most certainly wrong. (Full Disclosure: I am not an attorney, you probably aren’t either. But the WSJ did a great job collecting thoughts from legal experts here.)

Set legality aside. Even if Google was legally in the right, I think they still made the wrong call.

To be fair to Google, it was a tough call to make. While some of the claims in the memo are faulty (or to put it generously, some conclusions aren’t supported by the same science Damore appeals to), the full text of the memo reveals an author whose intent doesn’t seem to be harassing or discriminatory. Damore acknowledges his own biases several times, states his support for diversity programs, and offers his ideas for how to improve current programs or improve results by removing some programs. (Full Disclosure: I’m also not a personality psychologist, you probably aren’t either. But Quillette did a great job collecting thoughts from experts on gender differences here.)

Yes, Damore’s memo most certainly caused some offense, and for Google leadership to acknowledge the memo’s claims and respond with counterarguments would likely have offended even more. But whenever we refuse to engage in conversation with those whose viewpoints offend us, we lose the opportunity to correct those viewpoints. And if those viewpoints are made with faulty evidence, we lose the opportunity to provide more accurate evidence and set the record straight.

Google leadership did get one thing right: they stated quickly and unequivocally that the company’s beliefs differed from Damore’s. What they got wrong was a refusal to acknowledge or challenge any of Damore’s claims.

In her response, Google’s VP of Diversity and Inclusion Danielle Brown wrote that “Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions.” However, elsewhere in her response, Brown refuses to link to Damore’s memo; nowhere in her response does she engage any of his claims seriously. Refusing to acknowledge certain claims is not a particularly helpful way to make those claimants feel safe to share their opinions. Firing them even less so.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai defended the firing by saying that “Our co-workers shouldn’t have to worry that each time they open their mouths to speak in a meeting, they have to prove that they are not like the memo states.” He’s absolutely right. But the way to accomplish that isn’t to squelch debate through a reactionary firing. It’s to publicly debunk each claim he feels is wrong.

Damore claims that many Googler’s have reached out to him privately to thank him for beginning the discussion. Google’s public response, however, sends all of those still at the company a clear message: the discussion is over.

Google claims the memo violated its code of conduct. But Damore’s action was entirely in keeping with the final line in that very same code: “If you see something that you think isn’t right – speak up!”

Damore did exactly that, and sadly, because of Google’s response, it’s unlikely anyone else will be taking Google up on that offer anytime soon.

David Burkus is a bestselling author, award-winning podcaster, and associate professor of leadership and innovation at Oral Roberts University. Follow him on Twitter: @davidburkus

Why Google Firing the Diversity Memo Writer Was the Wrong Call (and Possibly Illegal)