Anatomy of a Crisis: Google & the Diversity Memo
It’s fun to watch when it’s someone else who is facing a tricky issue under the microscope of social media and in the full glare of national newspapers, radio and TV news. More importantly, it’s a learning experience. And a safe one.
Your observations may help you when your organization faces a similar threat to its reputation.
Perhaps the most difficult and complex issues we're facing today, are those that derive from cultural and social shifts that subsequently become politicized in this toxic, polarized context.
So, let’s start with Google.
In early August 2017, a senior Google software engineer published a 10-page manifesto, ‘Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber’, that argued, among other things, that the company’s gender gaps are the result of biological differences between men and women.
It suggested that Google’s diversity initiatives should be replaced by others that promote ideological diversity, as conservative employees are the ones that are suffering discrimination.
Originally published on company message boards, it eventually went viral after several weeks.
The engineer was subsequently identified as James Damore.
On August 7th, Google fired him on the grounds that the memo advanced harmful gender stereotypes in the workplace.
Damore complained to the National Labor Relations Board that he was being treated unfairly by Google management and that the company was trying to silence his complaints.
Meanwhile, Mr Damore became a hero among the conservative media with positive articles on him and criticism of Google in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Federalist, National Review, Weekly Standard and Breitbart News.
It also emerged that the Labor Department is investigating Google over a potential gender gap in pay and attorneys are trying to gather female plaintiffs to bring a class action lawsuit against the company.
In other words, Google was under attack from both sides of the equation!
What did Google do well?
Once the memo became public, senior management showed they took it very seriously – an important message for their female employees.
CEO Sundar Pichai cut a vacation short to return to Silicon Valley to manage the situation and issued a long, thoughtful memo to staff.
The firing of the engineer underlined the company’s stated commitment to a diverse working place.
What could they have done better?
One word – speed.
This story is a poster child for how issues can grow and fester online without senior management being aware.
And when such issues do burst into public view, the topic moves fast driven by social and online media, outstripping the company’s ability to formulate a response quickly enough.
First, the memo had apparently been on Google’s message boards for weeks. Even allowing for Google’s business model being based on free speech, these kind of message boards have to be monitored.
Action could have been taken a lot earlier, a lot more discreetly and a lot more collaborative with Mr. Damore. Once the memo was public, Google had nowhere else to go.
The second problem area is in Google’s response. The issue and the memo had been highly visible and much discussed days before Google finally responded with the firing and the CEO memo to employees.
A crisis preparedness plan must have tools to identify and track issues and the resources to enable the organization to respond at social media speed to an emerging threat.