One of the benefits of social media and electronic communications is that they give a public voice to those who might not otherwise have one. Those same tools, however, can cause headaches for businesses, which are often conflicted between embracing their employees’ right to express themselves and ensuring that those expressions do not harm the company. As Google’s recent experience shows, in today’s world there is little a company can do to prevent rogue employees from broadcasting their views. The important thing, instead, is how companies respond.
Last month, Google engineer James Damore wrote an internal memo analyzing the company’s diversity policies. The controversial memo condemned the policies and posited that the lack of women in tech positions is caused by biological differences rather than industry-wide discrimination.
Damore criticized Google’s “ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be honestly discussed.” The memo quickly went viral, sparking headlines in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, to name just a few outlets. Known for employing some of the world’s most talented, free-thinking individuals, Google had to quickly decide – how could it gain control of the narrative before the memo caused irreparable reputational harm?
Google’s actions were swift and decisive. Soon after Damore’s memo began receiving attention, Vice President of Diversity Danielle Brown issued a strong statement condemning its contents. Two days later, Damore was fired for “violating the [Google] Code of Conduct” (specifically, for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes”) according to an email company CEO Sundar Pichai sent to all employees.
Pichai’s email struck the right balance. It supported “the right of Googlers to express themselves” and acknowledged that “much of what was in that memo is fair to debate,” but maintained that it should be discussed in accordance with Google’s Code of Conduct. He also advised employees to “reach out to those who might have different perspectives from your own.”
Pichai was also proactive in committing to create opportunities for Google’s 60,000 employees to discuss gender issues more broadly.
The Bottom Line
Google faced a difficult yet all-too-common dilemma – what to do when a rogue employee’s opinions cause a company public discomfort or embarrassment. For Google’s part, it handled the situation as well as it could have:
- It issued a swift and coordinated response with consistent messaging aligned among key executives, decisively addressing the issues but keeping the focus on Google’s values and the important work it does;
- It did not downplay the issue. It acknowledged the importance of Damore’s concerns, but maintained airing them in such an inflammatory manner was inappropriate and necessitated strong action;
- It provided a clear call to action, which included steps that employees can take to promote company unity; and
- It used the crisis as a jumping-off point for a company-wide discussion of an important issue.
While Google’s executives rose to the occasion and effectively managed a PR crisis by addressing both sides of the issue, the company must now face the bigger issue of backing up its claims and following through on its messaging. Otherwise, its initially impactful statements will be nothing more than empty promises.