Was Google right not to fire Kamau Bobb over his antisemitic blog post?

A Google sign is seen during the WAIC (World Artificial Intelligence Conference) in Shanghai, China, September 17, 2018.
A Google sign is seen during the WAIC (World Artificial Intelligence Conference) in Shanghai, China, September 17, 2018.
Image: Reuters/Aly Song
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When news broke that Google’s now-former head of diversity Kamau Bobb had authored an antisemitic blog post back in 2007, the outrage was understandable. Comments like Bobb’s—“If I were a Jew I would be concerned about my insatiable appetite for war”—are bigoted coming from anyone. But his role as “global lead for diversity strategy and research” at Google made Bobb’s sentiments striking in their hypocrisy.

Rather than firing him, Google reassigned Bobb to a different, STEM-focused role. It’s a decision bound to upset some people, particularly given the frequency with which antisemitism is downplayed as a problem.

We don’t know the specific factors behind Google’s decision, or to what extent Bobb’s views have changed over the years (he did apologize for the way his criticisms of Israel relied on antisemitic tropes).  But it’s worth reflecting on whether firing is truly the only acceptable resolution when an employee’s problematic online past is revealed.

Getting fired for social media posts

There are certainly times when firing an employee over a resurfaced speech or offensive post on social media is the right thing to do. But there can also be nuance:

  • How long ago did the employee make the comments in question, and how old were they at the time?
  • Do they have a history of repeatedly making derogatory comments?
  • Have they since rejected the harmful views they once espoused?
  • Are they willing to own up to the fact that their comments hurt people?
  • Can they demonstrate through their speech and behavior over the ensuing years that they have truly changed?

After all, many people absorb biased stereotypes and intolerant views while growing up, and then learn through education and greater exposure to the outside world why they were wrong. The internet has also eliminated some of the leeway historically afforded to gaffe-prone young people, whose histories online can never be erased.

Consider Emily Wilder, the 22-year-old Associated Press reporter who was recently fired after the group Stanford College Republicans dug up pro-Palestinian social media posts she’d written in college, including one that referred to billionaire GOP donor Sheldon Adelson as a “naked mole rat.” As Kashmir Hill wrote recently for the New York Times, Wilder’s experience was a reminder that the current societal norm is to exact harsh judgments upon anyone with a troubling online past. “Accountability from an individual’s employer or affiliated institutions is expected immediately upon the unearthing of years-old content,” Hill observed. “Who you were a year ago, or five years ago, or decades ago, is flattened into who you are now.”

There are real risks to adopting black-and-white approaches to misdeeds: For example, zero-tolerance sexual harassment policies can backfire by discouraging women from reporting low-level harassment, since they don’t want men to lose their positions over relatively minor (but still unwanted) offenses.

When it comes to revelations about people’s harmful past behaviors, we’ll all be better off if workplaces consider individual circumstances and context, even if those considerations aren’t necessarily visible to the outside world. It’s inarguably important to hold people accountable for their actions—but accountability needn’t always mean firing the offender.