The Google Manifesto Debate Tells Us That Diversity Training Is Harder Than We Suspect

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Aug 9, 2017

It was inevitable that Google would fire its outspoken software engineer for his controversial manifesto challenging the company’s efforts at diversity and suggesting biology is why there are few female coders and leaders.

James Damore confirmed his Monday firing in emails to news organizations, telling The New York Times, among others, that he was considering legal action and had complained to the NLRB even before the firing that Google was trying to silence him.

Meanwhile Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent a company-wide email saying that by “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace,” Damore had violated the company’s Code of Conduct.

“To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK,” Pichai said.

Predictably, lawyers and academics, as well as alt-right news sites have weighed in on the legality of the firing and on the free speech and political aspects of the case. The legal consensus is that Google probably had a right to fire Damore, though the case is hardly a slam dunk. And the free speech argument, in a law court if not the court of public opinion, is a non-starter. The First Amendment prohibits government action only.

For HR leaders, there is a broader issue here. How do you reach those who hold views similar to Damore’s?

A Los Angeles Times article referencing Google’s extensive diversity training program, ironically observed that Damore “appears to have hardened his views as a result of Google’s push to tackle unconscious bias.”

Then the article quotes Wayne Sutton, co-founder of an organization promoting tech D&I:

I’ve been doing this work for years and I know without a doubt that there are plenty of people who don’t come from underrepresented backgrounds who feel like the diversity work that companies are doing, and the conversations around giving women and underrepresented groups the same opportunities as everyone else, is unfair.

Google describes its D&I training as “unbiasing” and shares its training materials and guides on its re:Work site. “Over 74% of Googlers have participated in these workshops, and all new Googlers and managers are trained in it,” the company says.

But in cases like Damore’s the bias isn’t unconscious. As he argues in his manifesto, it’s a profoundly held belief. The challenge for HR professionals is that for every Damore, there are others, many others, who cling to those prejudices in silence. Almost certainly, there are workers in your organization who harbor similar feelings.

I’m not talking here about ignorant extremists, or supremacists or the “deplorables” of the last campaign. Damore has a masters from Harvard in systems biology and was on his way to earning a PhD. You can be sure other smart, educated people hold similar views.

Indeed, Eric Weinstein, managing director of the VC firm Thiel Capital, tweeted this defense, “I believe that google just fired a biologist & created an unsafe work environment for *anyone* who even entertains selection in humans.”

Unable or afraid to express their out-of-mainstream ideas, employees may not actively sabotage efforts at diversity and inclusion, but more subtly, and perhaps even unconsciously, do nothing to advance them. Beyond that, they may act in ways that others may consider disrespectful or even hostile. These may also be some of your most disengaged workers.

This is where human resource leaders need to step up. You can’t just declare diversity to be a company goal and expect everyone to fall in line. Doubters, questioners and those with other points of view need to be given permission to express themselves and to hear why the company does what it does and how it makes a difference.

I’m not advocating a free for all, anything goes debate in the middle of the office. I’m making the case here for honest, open discussions as part of diversity training. Acknowledging that employees have a broad range of opinions, some of them out of step with the company’s efforts at diversity is the first step in reshaping your diversity training.

Allowing them to give voice to unpolitic thoughts enables you to gauge the state of the culture and get a read on what issues specifically need to be addressed. You will not convince everyone of the rightness of your program. Culture change, as any reader of TLNT knows well, is a difficult process.