Google firing is justified, experts say
NEW YORK — The Google engineer who blamed biological differences for the paucity of women in tech had every right to express his views. And Google likely had every right to fire him, workplace experts and lawyers say.
Special circumstances — from the country’s divisive political climate to Silicon Valley’s broader problem with gender equity — contributed to the anger and subsequent firing. But the fallout should still serve as a warning to anyone in any industry expressing unpopular, fiery viewpoints.
“Anyone who makes a statement like this and expects to stick around … is foolish,” said David Lewis, chief executive officer of Operations Inc., a humanresources consulting firm.
The engineer, James Damore, wrote a memo criticizing Google for pushing men-
toring and diversity programs and for “alienating conservatives.” The parts that drew the most anger made such assertions as women “prefer jobs in social and artistic areas” and have a “lower stress tolerance” and “harder time” leading, while more men “may like coding because it requires systemizing.”
Google’s code of conduct says workers “are expected to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias, and unlawful discrimination.” Google’s CEO, Sundar Picahi, said Damore violated this code.
Yonatan Zunger, who recently
left Google as a senior engineer, wrote in a post on the Medium website that he would have had no choice but to fire Damore had he been his supervisor.
“Do you understand that at this point, I could not in good conscience assign anyone to work with you?” he wrote. “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.”
Though one might argue for a right to free speech, however unpopular, such protections are generally limited to government and other public employees — and to unionized workers with rights to disciplinary hearings before any firing.
Broader protections are
granted to comments about workplace conditions. Damore argues in a federal labor complaint that this applies to his case, but experts disagree.
“By posting that memo, he forfeited his job,” said Jennifer Lee Magas, public relations professor at Pace University and a former employment law attorney. “He was fired for his words, but also for being daft enough to post these thoughts on an open workplace forum, where he was sure to be met with backlash and to offend his colleagues — male and female alike.”
Blamed for years for not hiring enough women and members of minority groups — and not welcoming them once they are hired — tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Uber have promised big changes.
These have included diversity and mentoring programs and coding classes for groups underrepresented among the companies’ technical and leadership staff. Many tech companies also pledge to interview, though not necessarily hire, minority-group candidates.
These are the sorts of things Damore’s memo railed against.
As such, experts say Damore might not have been fired at a company that doesn’t have such a clear message on diversity.
In addition, had Damore worked for a smaller, lesserknown company, an internal memo might not have created such a “media storm,” said Aimee Delaney, a Hinshaw & Culbertson attorney who represents companies on labor matters.