Ethical Dilemma

Aug 30, 2017 | 0 comments

“Google CEO: Anti-Diversity Memo Was ‘Offensive and Not OK’”

Note: In addition to the following article, please also see the related video included at the above-referenced internet address.

According to the article, Google CEO Sundar Pichai has condemned portions of a controversial memo sent by a male engineer at the company who argued that women are not biologically fit for tech roles.

Reuters and Bloomberg  reported recently that the engineer had been fired, citing e-mails they received from him.

In an e-mail to Google employees, Pichai wrote that parts of the 3,300-word manifesto crossed the line by “advancing harmful gender stereotypes” in the workplace.

“Our job is to build great products for users that make a difference in their lives,” he wrote in the e-mail. “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 he was cutting his family vacation short to return to the office.

“Clearly there’s a lot more to discuss as a group,” he wrote. “Including how we create a more inclusive environment for all.”

Reactions to the memo inside Google have been fierce and divisive. Some employees used an internal discussion group to call for the engineer who wrote it to be fired, according to a source inside the company. Others have supported the employee’s right to voice his opinions, if not supporting the opinions themselves.

Google has prided itself as an environment that encourages openness and diversity of opinions. But Pichai said that sections of the memo violate the company’s Code of Conduct, which requires “each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination.”

A source inside the company said that when an employee violates the company’s code of conduct, it often results in firing.

Pichai also said in his e-mail that there are Google employees who are questioning whether they can safely express their opinions, especially ones that might fall into a minority.

“They too feel under threat, and that’s not OK,” he wrote. “People must feel free to express dissent.”

Discussion Questions

1. Does Google have a legal obligation to comply with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution’s “free speech” provision? Why or why not?

In short answer, “No.” The First Amendment to the United States Constitution’s “free speech” provision proclaims that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” The First Amendment proscribes the government’s curtailment of speech; a private party such as an employer-corporation can impose more substantial restrictions on speech.

2. James Damore is the 28-year-old, now-former Google software engineer who wrote the memorandum referenced in the article. According to Mr. Damore’s memorandum, “(w)omen, on average, have more openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas; extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness; a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading; and neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance.)”

Do these opinions, as expressed in the memorandum, violate Google’s Code of Conduct? Why or why not?

As the article indicates, Google’s Code of Conduct requires “each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination.” This is subject to some interpretation; however, in your author’s opinion, suggesting (as Mr. Damore did in his memorandum) that women are generally less suitable for employment in the technology sector due to “higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance” would appear to violate the “bias” or “unlawful discrimination” prohibitions set forth in the Code of Conduct. In his memorandum, Mr. Damore made generalized, stereotypical assumptions about women based on their gender. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment based on gender.

3. Google fired Mr. Damore for his memorandum and opinions expressed therein. Did Google have the legal right and/or ethical obligation to do so? Explain your response.

Although student opinions may vary in response to this question, in your author’s opinion, Google did have the right to terminate Mr. Damore for his memorandum. Although the article does not indicate whether Mr. Damore had a contract for a term (a length of time) with Google, Google could contend that Mr. Damore breached his employment contract with Google due to violation of the company’s Code of Conduct, thus justifying termination of employment. Remember, as indicated in response to Ethical Dilemma Discussion Question Number 1, Google does not have a First Amendment “free speech” obligation to Mr. Damore. Further, if Google contends that Mr. Damore made a discriminatory assertion based on gender, in contravention of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Google also (at least arguably) had an ethical obligation to react.