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What Employers Can Learn From Google's Recent Diversity Battle

Google's recent controversy over a 10-page memo written by a male employee who claimed women were biologically and emotionally inferior to men is one in a string of recent highly publicized eruptions of bias in the workplace. In addition to the outrage caused by the memo itself, the company's initial response was seen as rather lackluster, and there was concern that other employees may have agreed with the memo.

What Happened

The writer, James Damore, claimed women were not suited to working in technological fields, and that this was supposedly the reason so few women worked at Google. He also accused Google of not being tolerant of conservative points of view, but the gender generalizations understandably got more attention.

Google's initial response was to have Danielle Brown, the vice president for diversity, reiterate that Google did not support those views; the company's CEO, Sundar Pichai, issued another memo also stating that the views espousing gender bias were not in line with Google's views. However, Pichai noted that there were points in the memo that were essentially fair game for debate. Damore was later fired.

Google's response was seen as slow, with at least one employee threatening to quit if Damore was not fired. Several current and former employees also swiftly denounced the memo, with one noting that the memo created a hostile workplace. A columnist for The Atlantic openly requested that Pichai describe those points in the memo that were the subject of debate.

There's Opinion, and Then There's Hostility

Damore's position was that this was his view, but what he espoused was not merely an opinion. It was a hostile position that said all women were not well-suited to the world of technology.

Employers have to provide a workplace that is inclusive. They can't allow a workplace to become hostile, meaning that people should not feel like they are being bullied. Workers should also not feel like they are in danger from other employees even if direct threats haven't been made.

There is a big difference between a worker saying that another specific worker may not be suited for the job based on poor work performance, and a worker saying an entire gender is biologically unable to work in tech. That second situation sets up a hostile environment in which all workers of that gender now face opposition merely because they were born as a certain gender.

Damore's memo is even more baffling and divisive when you consider that women were some of the original computer programmers and coders. The mathematical knowledge required for programs was considered unimportant and left to women. Of course, those women went on to hand-code the programs for ENIAC, the first computer, and who can forget the major contributions of women like Katherine Johnson and Margaret Hamilton at NASA? The memo's content erases women's contributions and history in the field.

Make Your Policies Clear

Companies must make their codes of conduct clear. Whether a company has full-time employees or uses contractors, it should allow employees a safe way to be heard, but also emphasize that race- and gender-based statements (as well as religion, sexual orientation, and so on) are inappropriate in the workplace. It should also clearly state that hostile behavior from employees, contract workers, and even customers will not be tolerated. Employers should ensure the code of conduct has teeth and enforce penalties.

Opinions in general should be tolerated. But statements and actions that treat other workers as biologically or mentally inferior are not opinions. When this is clear in a company's code of conduct, the employer is able to lead accordingly in these kinds of situations.

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