Google CEO Cuts Vacation Short To Deal With Crisis Over Diversity Memo

Aug 8, 2017
Originally published on August 8, 2017 6:24 pm

Google CEO Sundar Pichai cut his the vacation short and returned to the company's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters as criticism mounted over a senior engineer's controversial memo condemning Google's diversity initiatives. The engineer was subsequently fired.

The memo, which some inside Google jokingly called a "manifesto," was widely shared inside and outside the company.

James Damore wrote that "biological causes" are part of the reason women aren't represented equally in its tech departments and leadership. In addition, Damore said men have a "higher drive for status."

Damore also criticized the company for being an "ideological echo chamber" that made it hard to dissent from "Google's left bias" and "politically correct monoculture." He also faulted the company for offering mentoring and other opportunities to its employees based on gender or race.

Pichai released a memo of his own Monday night about the situation. Pichai said that he supported the right of workers to express themselves but that the memo had gone too far. The CEO wrote:

"The memo has clearly impacted our co-workers, some of whom are hurting and feel judged based on their gender. 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.' "

Pichai said portions of Damore's memo violate "our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace." Pichai has scheduled an all-staff meeting to discuss the situation.

In an email to The New York Times, Damore said he is likely to pursue legal action. "I have a legal right to express my concerns about the terms and conditions of my working environment and to bring up potentially illegal behavior, which is what my document does," Damore said.

Meanwhile, social media continues to churn with tweets and posts on both sides of the issue. Conservative sites like The Federalist saw the firing as proof of Damore's point that Google does not tolerate diversity of opinion.

However, former Google employee Kelly Ellis, who told NPR on Monday that she thought Google should fire Damore, sent out tweets supporting the decision. Ellis says she left Google because she was sexually harassed.

Ellis said Google promotes employees and determines salaries based on peer evaluations. Therefore, she says, Damore's bias against women could harm female colleagues.

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A Google engineer who slammed the company's diversity program is now out of a job, and Google's trying to contain the damage done after his memo went viral. Google's CEO even cut his vacation short and rushed back to corporate headquarters, as NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: CEO Sundar Pichai wrote to employees about the decision to fire James Damore. He says, the memo clearly impacted our co-workers, some of whom are hurting and feel judged based on their gender. The memo circulated among some people at Google and found its way to the outside world. It said biological causes may be one of the reasons women aren't represented equally in tech departments and leadership.

In addition, Damore said, men have a higher drive for status. In his response to Damore's memo, Pichai said that no one at the company should have to prove that they don't fit the stereotype in the memo, that most women are agreeable rather than assertive, showing a lower stress tolerance and being neurotic. In some quarters, the firing was applauded. Telle Whitney is the CEO of the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology.

TELLE WHITNEY: Because this memo had a huge impact on certainly the women at Google, as well as women who would be considering coming to Google.

SYDELL: Whitney, whose organization gets funding from Google, says she respects Damore's right to his opinion. But the way it was expressed troubled her and would end up making a lot of women feel uneasy. So Google calculated it was better to lose one employee.

WHITNEY: You've always got to make the tradeoff between having an impact on a single individual and the message that you make to the tens of thousands of employees.

SYDELL: Google may in fact be making a clear tradeoff. Neil Malhotra is a professor at Stanford School of Business. Malhotra has studied how potential employees respond to businesses that take a political position like Google just did. He says for the most part, that is more likely to help Google recruit talent than keep it away.

NEIL MALHOTRA: People probably would not leave Google if they disagreed with the decision. But this would maybe help Google recruit employees who may share their preferences or beliefs on this issue.

SYDELL: In fact, Google needs to recruit more women. Right now only 20 percent of its technical staff are female. Meanwhile, the company is under investigation by the U.S. Labor Department for allegedly paying women less than their male counterparts. Google has refused to release its salaries. However, Silicon Valley is also a place that prides itself on being open to diverse opinions because that's what makes it innovative. Malhotra says it's possible this firing will have a chilling effect on the company.

MALHOTRA: You could say, well, maybe this means that people who are voicing concerns with the decisions of the company won't raise them because they might fear for their jobs. And then sometimes the company depends on people saying, well, this decision that were being made is not a good decision.

SYDELL: The firing of Damore also drew a lot of flak from conservatives who felt that Google was being too politically correct. Robert P. George, a professor at Princeton, tweeted out, the culture of intolerance at Google is hardly unique. It exists at most large companies and other elite institutions. Folks are sick of it. And even many of those who agree with the decision to fire Damore think Google should do a better job at finding safe ways for everyone to share their opinions. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS CHEUNG'S "I AM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.