An internal post went viral at Google, and is now dominating the news cycle in tech / feminism. The resulting conversation has covered a lot of already familiar ground. Women and minorities continue to come forward with stories of discrimination, and white nationalists continue to complain that diversity efforts lower the bar. None of that is particularly new, and each side is preaching to the choir. This conversation frustrates everyone and changes nothing.
But there is something new that we can take away from this debate. Google isn’t a free speech zone, or at least it shouldn’t be. Danielle Brown, Google’s brand new VP of Diversity, Integrity & Governance, responded to the manifestbro by saying “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.”
Really? Not all opinions are appropriate to for company-wide sharing. Does that include speech that undermines other employees or makes them feel unsafe at Google? How and where does Google draw that line? In its efforts to make work feel like it’s not work, Google has lost sight of basic professionalism.
Google is not a democracy and internal forums are not a town hall. Programs like Google’s diversity efforts should indeed be subject to review but this should happen in a more structured way.
There are things which are ok, or at least permitted, on Twitter and among friends and in the public sphere. While a debate on the capabilities or ambitions of women in STEM may be distasteful to me, or just uninteresting because it’s such well trodden ground, it’s a conversation that has its place in the public discourse. There are decades of sociological research on the subject. The merits of diversity recruiting, best ways to create a more just society, and questions of whether discrimination is real are also legit topics for public discourse. Individual publishers may choose not to host that conversation, but speech that is ugly or ignorant or just not contributing anything new has its place under “free speech” in America. It’s not very neighborly, but it’s perfectly legal to type up a polite manifesto insulting people on the basis of race or gender.
This same speech becomes a problem in a corporate environment, which is held to a different set of standards. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, or gender. And speech questioning the technical qualifications of people based on race or gender arguably falls under this category.
The subtext of the anti-diversity post is that diversity efforts lower the bar, and that women and people of color may not be fit to work at Google. It seems straightforward that such speech is at best bad for team morale and at worst “contributes to a hostile work environment.”
And even questions like whether Google has a left-leaning bias or other biases are worth exploring but that exploration needs to happen in a measured way, not as a company wide brouhaha. Inflammatory speech is a problem in a corporate environment. I’m surprised that this is not obvious to the executives at Google and to many of my readers on Twitter.
Google is not a free speech zone, or at least it shouldn’t be. No corporation should be a free speech zone. Google is supposed to be a professional space, one where people come together for the shared purpose of powering the world’s greatest online ads machine. Google admirably tries to do other things, and some Googlers are working on that too. That’s why they are there. It’s Google’s job to make sure that the employees have everything they need to work efficiently, safely and ideally also happily. Google is not a space where employees should be able to express and share whatever feelings they may have, regardless of how it affects others.
I love work. I love work precisely because of the rules. Work is, or it should be, a place where we all agree to be civil with each other. It’s a place where we agree to focus on the task at hand. It’s not a place where we all need to work out our differences and bond as a family. For the time when we are at work, we set aside our differences and focus on our shared mission.
I was at a company recently where the CEO would insult the way that I spoke, the way that I formatted emails, and was also very comfortable shit-talking our product and our industry. When confronted, he said “I’m being transparent. I’m just sharing how I feel.” But work isn’t a romantic relationship. And we’re not a family either, not really.
Employees don’t need transparency, they need professionalism. Professionalism means limits and boundaries. Not all opinions need to be shared among all colleagues. It’s time that Google executives were willing to be the grownups in the room. Professionalism requires basic boundaries and minimal respect. This is not too much to ask, and yet it’s so far from where we are.