MANAGEMENT 101

Google’s response to its viral diversity memo is a classic conversation-avoidance technique

Obsession
Propaganda
Obsession
Propaganda

Over the weekend, a 3,000-word internal memo that went viral inside Google went viral on the internet as well. Written by an unnamed but reportedly male Google engineer, the document—published in full by Gizmodo—criticizes the company’s measures to promote gender and racial diversity in the workforce.

The author says several times that he is in favor of gender and racial diversity at Google; his beef is about how the company’s diversity programs are designed. More broadly, he argues that it’s impossible to have a proper debate about their merits because, he says, the company lacks ideological diversity and views like his are too easily shut down. He writes (my emphasis):

I hope it’s clear that I’m not saying that diversity is bad, that Google or society is 100% fair, that we shouldn’t try to correct for existing biases, or that minorities have the same experience of those in the majority. My larger point is that we have an intolerance for ideas and evidence that don’t fit a certain ideology.

One could take issue, and many people have, with the engineer’s critiques of Google’s diversity programs and his arguments about ingrained differences between men and women. But in one respect at least he appears to be right: Google, just like most companies, does not handle unorthodox ideas well.

Consider the internal letter from Danielle Brown, Google’s vice president of diversity, integrity, and governance, to whom it fell to respond to the memo after just two weeks on the job. Here’s her reply in its entirety, with my emphasis and comments interspersed.

Googlers,

I’m Danielle, Google’s brand new VP of Diversity, Integrity & Governance. I started just a couple of weeks ago, and I had hoped to take another week or so to get the lay of the land before introducing myself to you all. But given the heated debate we’ve seen over the past few days, I feel compelled to say a few words.

Many of you have read an internal document shared by someone in our engineering organization, expressing views on the natural abilities and characteristics of different genders, as well as whether one can speak freely of these things at Google. And like many of you, I found that it advanced incorrect assumptions about gender (1). I’m not going to link to it here (2) as it’s not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes or encourages (3).

(1) This statement brooks no discussion as to why the “assumptions about gender” in the engineer’s memo are “incorrect.” True, this particular letter might not be the appropriate place to dissect his arguments in detail, but the blanket dismissal suggests Brown considers them not worth discussing at all.

(2) She reinforces that by saying she won’t link to the memo. People are free to discuss this, she is saying, but as the person whose very job description the memo questions, she considers its ideas to be beyond the pale of acceptable debate.

(3) Furthermore, although Brown initially couches this just as a personal opinion (“…like many of you, I found…”) she quickly converts it into an official one (“…not a viewpoint that I or this company…”), assuming Google’s imprimatur for her view.

Of course, Google has the right to rule that certain discussions within the company are off the table. And some might argue that redesigning diversity policies around supposedly innate differences between men and women is one such discussion. But if so, the right thing to do would be to respond directly to the engineer’s views and say why they are not acceptable. Instead, as we will continue to see, Brown tries to suggest that all views are welcome while simultaneously situating these particular ones outside the bounds of acceptable discourse.

Diversity and inclusion are a fundamental part of our values and the culture we continue to cultivate. We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success (4) as a company, and we’ll continue to stand for that and be committed to it for the long haul. As Ari Balogh said in his internal G+ post, “Building an open, inclusive environment is core to who we are, and the right thing to do. ‘Nuff said.”

Google has taken a strong stand on this issue, by releasing its demographic data and creating a company wide OKR on diversity and inclusion. Strong stands elicit strong reactions. Changing a culture is hard (5), and it’s often uncomfortable. But I firmly believe Google is doing the right thing, and that’s why I took this job.

(4), (5) In these two paragraphs, Brown implicitly positions the engineer as an opponent of the core Google values of diversity and inclusion. Holding those values, she says, is a “strong stand” which elicits “strong reactions” from those opposed to “changing the culture.”

However, the engineer proclaims himself to be in favor of those values throughout the memo. “I value diversity and inclusion… We should be optimizing for Google—with Google’s diversity being a component of that… I strongly believe in gender and racial diversity, and I think we should strive for more… We need psychological safety and shared values to gain the benefits of diversity.”

Again, one might disagree with him on the ways to achieve diversity. One might also question, given some of the things he writes, whether he truly believes in it or is merely paying lip service. However, positioning him as opposing diversity outright serves to delegitimize him without examining either his arguments or his motives.

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 (6). But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment (7) found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.

There is something frankly Orwellian about making a promise to safeguard free speech (6) while constraining it within boundaries (7) that in fact have nothing to do with speech. Those principles of equal employment 1 from the code of conduct are, as they should be, a promise to avoid discrimination in hiring and harassment. They say nothing about what kind of views it is acceptable to share or debate within the company. A frequent complaint of conservatives is that discussion is too heavily policed on the left, and this paragraph is a none-too-subtle form of policing.

I’ve been in the industry for a long time, and I can tell you that I’ve never worked at a company that has so many platforms for employees to express themselves (8)—TGIF, Memegen, internal G+, thousands of discussion groups. I know this conversation doesn’t end with my email today. I look forward to continuing to hear your thoughts as I settle in and meet with Googlers across the company.

Thanks,

Danielle

(8) In this wrap-up, Brown addresses the engineer’s complaint that Google lacks a diversity of viewpoints. This is untrue, she says: The company provides a vast number settings for such viewpoints. However, in saying this, she dodges the central point of the complaint.

The engineer’s complaint is not that there is no place for him to express his views, but rather that the company makes people who express them feel unwelcome: “In highly progressive environments, conservatives are a minority that feel like they need to stay in the closet to avoid open hostility.” On this point, Brown’s letter appears to prove him right. It’s also a classic example of how to address an issue by not addressing it.


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