Google CEO Defends Employee’s Right to Express Unpopular Views, Condemns ‘Harmful’ Portions

Sundar Pichai
Sundar Pichai (Maurizio Pesce via Wikimedia Commons)

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has broken his silence regarding the misogynist memo penned by one of the company’s engineers, who had reportedly been fired, according to media outlets. According to Pichai, while the memo was harmful to the company’s women, the employee had every right to author it.

Top leaders at the company demonstrated their own worst practices by hiding behind a statement from their brand new head of diversity, who has only been on the job for a couple of weeks.

The engineer has been identified by media outlets as James Damore, who had worked for Google since 2013, according to the New York Times. Bloomberg reported that Damore had been fired, and the Times reported that Damore confirmed this in an email. Damore also reported to the Times that he is seeking legal action against Google.

Meanwhile, in a company memo titled “Our Words Matter,” Pichai’s first point is that employees may enjoy freedom of expression — no matter whom their words may harm.

“First, let me say that we strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves, and much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagree with it,” Pichai wrote.

At the same time, Pichai also acknowledged that the note not only violated the company’s code of conduct, it “clearly impacted” many of Google’s employees and also “advanc[ed] harmful stereotypes.”

Pichai went back and forth between defending Damore’s right to free speech while also indicating that his words do in fact matter when it comes to Google’s female employees:

“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, being ‘agreeable’ rather than ‘assertive,’ showing a ‘lower stress tolerance,’ or being ‘neurotic.’

“At the same time, there are co-workers who are questioning whether they can safely express their views in the workplace (especially those with a minority viewpoint).”

After giving employees the green light to “express themselves” in a way that could create a hostile work environment for certain employees, he then suggested staff members “make an effort over the coming days to reach out to those who might have different perspectives from your own.”

What Pichai does not address strongly enough is the consequences Damore’s words have on Google’s work environment.

Yonatan Zunger worked at Google as an engineer for 14 years and just left his position this month. Despite no longer working for the tech giant, Zunger on Aug. 5th penned a blog post of “the thing which I would have posted internally … because it’s relevant not just to Google, but to everyone else in tech.”

According to Zunger, the most serious issue with Damore’s diatribe is “the author does not appear to understand the consequences of what he wrote, either for others or himself.”

Directly addressing the writer of the manifesto (Damore had not been publicly identified at the time of Zunger’s blog post), Zunger wrote:

“What you just did was incredibly stupid and harmful. You just put out a manifesto inside the company arguing that some large fraction of your colleagues are at root not good enough to do their jobs, and that they’re only being kept in their jobs because of some political ideas. And worse than simply thinking these things or saying them in private, you’ve said them in a way that’s tried to legitimize this kind of thing across the company, causing other people to get up and say ‘wait, is that right?’”

Zunger continued by describing the “textbook hostile work environment” directly resulting from Damore’s post.

“And as for its impact on you: Do you understand that at this point, I could not in good conscience assign anyone to work with you? I certainly couldn’t assign any women to deal with this, a good number of the people you might have to work with may simply punch you in the face, and even if there were a group of like-minded individuals I could put you with, nobody would be able to collaborate with them. You have just created a textbook hostile workplace environment.”

While Pichai noted that Damore’s words were allegedly intended to open a discussion about different perspectives, Zunger rejected this notion, pointing out that this viewpoint would not — and should not — be welcome in most work environments.

“If you feel isolated by this, that your views are basically unwelcome in tech and can’t be spoken about… well, that’s a fair point. These views are fundamentally corrosive to any organization they show up in, drive people out, and I can’t think of any organization not specifically dedicated to those views that they would be welcome in. I’m afraid that’s likely to remain a serious problem for you for a long time to come. But our company is committed to maintaining a good environment for all of its people, and if one person is determined to thwart that, the solution is pretty clear.”

Erica Baker, also a former employee at Google, wrote a blog post as well, saying she was “disappointed but not surprised” to hear about the manifesto.

She called Damore’s actions “not entirely new behavior” when it comes to Google. But the fact that Damore felt comfortable enough to internally display his sexist views did strike Baker by surprise.

According to Baker, this point raised an important question: “why is the environment at Google such that racists and sexists feel supported and safe in sharing these views in the company?

“What about the company culture sends the message that sharing sexism and racism will be accepted?” Baker wrote. “What message and values have past words, actions and lack thereof sent to the employees at Google. What has shaped the culture thus far, to get to this point?”

Rajan Patel, currently a senior director at Google, posted on Twitter an email he sent to his team following the misogynist memo’s release. In his email he flatly says, “I wholly disagree with the intent and arguments made in that document.”

“And if you believe that there are intrinsic differences within gender, race, religion, sexuality, or other groups that make one a better human, then time will prove you wrong if history hasn’t already.”

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