Should Google have fired the employee?

This post first appeared in DNA India on August 10th, 2017.

The recent diversity issue at Google has created a buzz around the world. For those who haven’t heard, a Google employee wrote a memo that was shared on internal-company groups on what he termed “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”. The post went viral after someone posted it on social media and raised a storm with the net effect that Google fired him, Sundar Pichai had to cut short a vacation and write a response to the memo. Opinion, in an already polarized world, veered sharply from “he had the guts to speak the truth” to “he is a bigot”.

So what did the memo say? The gentleman who was a software engineer railed against what he perceived as discriminatory practices stemming from a need to promote diversity within the organisation, especially with respect to gender diversity. His belief is that women and men are genetically and biologically predisposed to certain vocations and that trying to force-fit people into roles purely to satisfy a desire for more diversity is achieving the opposite of what it is intended to achieve. He also says he believes in diversity in all its forms including a diversity of opinion and that in order to achieve that every employee needs to be treated as an individual and not as a member of one group or another.

As I go through the memo, what struck me was the overall tone of rationality throughout the memo. The author was basing his opinions on a certain logic and while we may disagree with the content of his arguments, at no point in time did that memo come across as being abusive or dismissive of people. I certainly did not agree with him about sweeping generalisations on how women are more “neurotic” or predisposed to specific tasks. I am not sure if there is research to even suggest that. I have had the good fortune to work with some really smart women and men and I couldn’t see any generalisable differences. There were both men and women who showed empathy and those that didn’t.

However, his statement that the overall demographic profile, especially in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines, needs to be taken into account found some resonance with my own experience in hiring software engineers for my start-up. The tilt towards male applicants is extreme and I am still trying to figure out whether this is more reflective of the underlying distribution of men and women in the STEM disciplines.

So should Google have fired the employee? In my opinion, Google made a mistake in doing so. Here is a company that encourages the voicing of opinions, of being a transparent working place. You can’t say that and at the same time penalise someone for having a contrary opinion, especially when the opinion was voiced in a polite and non-abusive manner. This is too much like thought-policing for my liking.

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