Google was wrong to fire the memo author

Claiming he breached the company’s code of conduct, Google has fired James Damore for a memo in which he criticized Google’s corporate culture.

That memo, entitled “Google’s echo chamber,” sparked uproar from some Google staffers for what they regarded as its sexist content. But others at Google defended Damore’s right to speak out.

I believe Google made the wrong decision in firing Damore. I recognize that the memo put Google in a very uncomfortable position. By suggesting that women were not predisposed to effectiveness in certain roles, Damore risked isolating Google customers and damaging its corporate brand.

Still, I’m unconvinced by Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s reasoning for firing Damore; “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace”, and suggesting “our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”

I’m unconvinced because I think Pichai is being short-sighted. After all, Pichai’s email announcing his decision to terminate Damore defends the right to critically scrutinize Google policies. Pichai notes that “many points raised in the memo — such as the portions criticizing Google’s trainings, questioning the role of ideology in the workplace, and debating whether programs for women and underserved groups are sufficiently open to all — are important topics.”

Yet whether Pichai likes it or not, the functional effect of this firing will be to chill the very intellectual honesty he claims to treasure. And that’s a recipe for a less entrepreneurial, less risk taking, and less creative Google. In other words, a company less well-positioned for maximum profits.

Don’t believe me? Contemplate how Google’s vice president for diversity, Danielle Brown, responded to Damore’s comments. Brown suggested that “Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions.”

Fine. But then, like all opponents of free speech, Brown hedged, “But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.” In practice, Brown’s vague reference to “policies” will mean that the expression of perfectly normal opinions at Google has been chilled.

Moreover, it’s not as if Pichai didn’t have alternatives here.

A better response, for example, would have been for Pichai to reassign Damore to an internal working group on corporate culture. Pichai could then have appointed others who fundamentally disagree Damore’s view to the same group. Indeed, with a net income of $19.7 billion in 2016, Google could have easily afforded to pay a prominent social scientist or feminist to also join the working group. Doing so would have addressed Google’s legitimate public relations concern against alienating female staffers and consumers. Put simply, this would have been a creative solution to a complicated and controversial challenge.

But now it’s a moot point. Considering the interests of the world’s preeminent technology company, Pichai has made the wrong decision.