Google axing someone for mouthing off in a memo was not a smart move

A lot of women who thought the employee's memo was wrong expressed themselves forcefully and convincingly on Twitter. Perhaps giving some of these women a platform – maybe a Google town hall debate with James Damore – could have done more good for workplace culture than giving Damore a pink-slip has done.

The company was free to fire the employee, of course. But its corporate policy should not be beyond reproach

James Damore's memo does not read like a document meant to cause pain and hurt; it reads like a plea to be able to speak more frankly. (Virginia Mayo/Associated Press)

The first thing that needs to be said about Google's decision to fire an employee who wrote an internal memo criticizing the company's diversity initiatives is: fair enough.

Management choosing to let go a worker whose attitude conflicts with the workplace it is trying to establish is a reasonable enough move. And a legal one. As it should be.

But that doesn't mean axing someone for mouthing off in a memo is a smart move. In a note about the incident, Google CEO Sundar Pichai reassured employees that "[p]eople must feel free to express dissent," which is a wise position, particularly for a company that thrives on creative innovation. Yet, how can that be the case if voicing an honest, respectfully worded opinion is a fireable offense at Google?

It doesn't matter, naturally, that James Damore, the engineer who wrote the memo, prefaced his remarks by saying that he values diversity and inclusion; that he doesn't deny the existence of sexism and that he doesn't endorse using stereotypes.

Critics of the memo — who are said to include a whole lot of insulted female Google employees — would insist that stereotypes are exactly what Damore put to paper when he suggested that biology, rather than just bias, is a significant reason why women are underrepresented in tech jobs. And don't get the hater-haters started on Damore's supposedly unscientific summaries of the differences between male and female personalities.

If the question is whether a lot of people would disagree with Damore, the answer is certainly "yes." But saying things many people would disagree with is not necessarily a bad quality in an employee.

(And one gathers that Damore really has been saying a lot of things people disagree with. As he explained somewhat defensively in the memo: "Despite what the public response seems to have been, I've gotten many personal messages from fellow Googlers expressing their gratitude for bringing up these very important issues which they agree with but would never have the courage to say or defend because of our shaming culture and the possibility of being fired.")

Anyhow, sincere open debate can be a boon for a business (or a family, or a society, or a country) if it's embarked upon civilly and with constructive intent.

Re-examining corporate policies

That's how human beings, who are all intellectually fallible, sort through difficult problems. And it's how we uncover, if not the ultimate truth, then at least the better ideas. It's how we evolve.

You can't decide what's right if you're not willing to consider – at least for a moment – what you're sure is wrong.

So, no, it's not a viable business strategy to be constantly engaged in petty arguments with combative employees, but yes, substantively re-examining a policy believed to beyond reproach – such as diversity initiatives – at an employee's earnest urging can be a good thing, even if only to force management to freshly articulate why the policy is so important, rather than letting it become stale dogma.

James Damore's memo does not read like a document meant to cause pain and hurt; it reads like a plea to be able to speak more frankly. Ultimately, it's suggesting that management adopt what bible types might call a teachable spirit. Which really isn't such a crazy idea. How many good management books are there out there that advise hubris over humility?

"On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways," Damore wrote (and it's hard to argue with him on that).

"These differences aren't just socially constructed…. Many of these differences are small and there's significant overlap between men and women, so you can't say anything about an individual given these population level distributions."

Damore may be right or wrong (or partly right and partly wrong), but what he's suggesting is neither wildly outlandish nor an invitation to discriminate against women in the workplace.

And if what he says about women is dismissive and diminishing (for example, stating the women have lower stress tolerance and are less assertive than men), is the best way to refute it to freak out and fire him before he disturbs the delicate flowers further?

A lot of women who thought Damore was wrong expressed themselves forcefully and convincingly on Twitter; giving some of these women a platform – perhaps a Google town hall debate with Damore – could have done more good for workplace culture than giving Damore a pink-slip has done.

Since Damore is being hailed by some as a free speech martyr – and Damore has said he'll sue Google — I'll repeat that I think Google had every right to fire him.

This isn't unlawful censorship, it's business.

But it does make you wonder how well business – and the rest of society – will do in the future given how poor we have all become at speaking civilly about controversial issues.

To read a counterpoint, click here.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Marni Soupcoff is a Toronto-based writer, commentator and policy analyst.


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