Fallout from the “google memo”

EDIT: I’ve been chatting to various people about this and they’ve pointed out that there’s also an issue of whether this document also counts as direct harassment of female colleagues and whether it significantly affects Google’s ability to recruit women. Both of which could potentially be a firing offence. I see their point of view but I still find the “chilling effects” scenario troubling. If I worked in a conservative institution and I circulated a memo saying that I believe that people in polyamorous relations should have them recognised by HR, that becomes public and is said to be harming the company’s image can I be fired?

The import thing to state again is that I’m in a privileged position and not in a group targeted by this document so the opinions of other should have more weight. That said, I still think Google have missed an opportunity to turn this into an open discussion. I believe that the idea that you give value to certain points of view just by being willing to engage with those that have them is false. All that Google’s achieved here is to drive underground other members of staff who agreed with this person where they will continue to have negative effects on the organisation.

++

By now most people who are going to care are already aware of, and have probably read, the so-called google memo.

I’ve tweeted about this a number of times already in the last few days. In short I agree that the guy is obviously wildly wrong in his views. This is especially the case about de-emphasising empathy which is still sadly lacking across the board and especially in folks of both genders who believe that software engineering is solving problems that are dispassionately disconnected from the real world.

That said, to be honest, I’ve been more concerned with much of the response to his “manifesto” than I was about his screed of easily-refutable nonsense.

There’s a disturbing notion that some beliefs are so inherently true that to disagree with them is so profoundly toxic that the person expressing those beliefs should be shunned from society. There’s been numerous effective calls for J. Edgar Hoover style inquiries into people’s non-work-related opinions, both during job interviews and for current employees, to root out existing bad apples. I find the idea of either highly disturbing.

If for no other reason this is because of the question of who gets to decide the dividing line for which personal opinions are to be acceptable for a particular organisation’s culture? If a person happens to be a committed member of a religious organisation that believes homosexuality is sinful but is respectful to gay and lesbian members of staff and treats the as equals in the workplace, should they be sacked if they express their opinion? Can someone be let go for saying something against the company diversity standard? There’s probably examples under gross misconduct but that could be hard to make stick – especially if it’s a religiously motivated opinion.

In this particular case the guy is obviously highly misguided but the real question is whether he lets his opinions effect his work and his relationships with his colleagues (including appraisal feedback, etc). If a person is acting inappropriately,  for example by consistently marking down female members of staff who get high ratings from other colleagues, then they should absolutely be called in for a conversation with HR and asked to undertake appropriate diversity and anti-bias training.

However, if they are not acting in bad faith then their own private opinions must remain private and are of no business whatsoever for organisation they work for.

What saddens me most about the calls to fire this guy (and the especially unhelpful doxing of his personal information) is the loss of opportunity that would represent. I’ve seen it written in this context that “we” don’t debate people who disbelieve evolution and this is an equivalent case. For evolution that’s just not true – organisation like the Centre for Inquiry do exactly that on a regular basis. They believe, as I do, that there’s more to be gained by using reasoned argument to try to convince people to update their worldview than there could ever be just from treating them as “other” and pushing them away to form their own disconnected self-reinforcing groups.

We know this works, this TED talk from ex-Westboro Baptist Church member Megan Phelps is a wonderful example and covers most of what I want to say in this piece better than I ever could – please watch it.

It can be said that this simply isn’t Google’s, or any company’s, responsibility. At the same time a very believable argument is put forward that what this guy said is actually a disturbingly common opinion within such organisations. Rather than trying to round these people up I believe Google has an outstanding opportunity to have a internal (or ideally public) discussion with this person and their supporters. Something the author of the memo obviously wants or they wouldn’t have pro-actively circulated a document from their own account. This is a chance to ask why people hold such opinions, debunk their false claims and hopefully enable them to come round to a more acceptable point of view.

I know I speak from a position of high privilege, but with minimal exceptions I’m a free speech absolutest. The answer to bad speech is almost always more speech, not the kind of actions that let the misinformed claim censorship.

I highly recommend Free Speech for Me But Not for Thee by Nat Hentoff which goes into that philosophy in much more detail.