How to talk about controversial Diversity-related topics at work (without the pitchforks🔥 or tears💦)

The talk of the watercooler this week across Silicon Valley and beyond was The Google Manifesto. Written by James Damore, the 10-page memo challenging the company’s diversity efforts got him quickly fired after it was leaked to the press.

But it’s not over yet, and not just because Damore is threatening to sue for wrongful termination. The Manifesto has sparked debates in many companies, and some of them have been quite heated.

Countless leaders of teams and HR now have a choice in how to approach the situation. As an individual, you might not feel knowledgeable or confident enough to step in, so you could do nothing. But this feels bigger than that.

Diversity & Inclusion efforts in tech have serious momentum right now. Because it’s such a personal matter to each of us, it’s not going away, nor is it clear-cut, black-and-white. Conversations about gender, race, age, sexuality, disability, along with bias, access, systematic injustices, psychological safety, and power — they are now part of the professional workplace, though the rulebook has yet to be written.

Therein lies the opportunity. The function of HR may have been born out of compliance, but the future — *smart* HR — is about navigating through emotionally-charged situations like this and supporting leaders to build inclusive, productive teams.

Here are 4 guidelines for managers and HR to talk about the Google Manifesto (and other potentially controversial topics) at work:

1. Get ahead of the conversation

Imagine being a woman in tech, after watching heated debates online, walking into the office and wondering which of your colleagues agree that you’re probably not biologically suited to your job. This person’s productivity *will* be affected, and if you’re her manager, that falls under your purview.

It’s ok to bring up issues like this with employees from underrepresented groups and ask them how they feel about it. They might say they just want space and to get on with their day, or they might be relieved to be asked and grateful for a listening ear.

It doesn’t have to be limited to 1:1 interactions either. Depending on your company size and culture, you may want to acknowledge the impact of debates like this in in a company-wide email from the CEO, or the first few minutes of your team or All-Hands meetings (or, for the truly brave, in Slack). You don’t have to be an expert on the “science” to be a leader that cares about their people — and that’s what your employees will remember.

2. Set rules of engagement

It’s already difficult having conversations like this at work, but it is possible to create a space that allows people to let down their defenses, employ vulnerability, and truly listen.

Set some basic rules of engagement to avoid circular conversations and chaos:

“Uncomfortable is okay, unsafe is not”
“Impact is more important than intent”

3. De-tangle the issue

When it comes to complex and emotionally-charged topics like the Google Manifesto, it’s important to separate out the content and delivery of what we’re talking about. Instead of getting sucked into a debate about X study or Y statistics used by Damore (the content), make the conversation about how he chose to voice and act on those beliefs (the delivery).

It’s easy to cite obscure studies and throw around various statistics to support or oppose an issue (and Damore did so, liberally). Jumping in to tear apart his ideas is not very likely to lead to any changing of minds. Instead, guide the conversation about what it means to be a professional in the workplace, specifically what it means at yourcompany.

If there was no memo, none of this would be happening. He did not get fired for simply having these biases. (That’s a whole separate problem, but many who share Damore’s viewpoints are feeling threatened, “Does that mean I’m getting fired too?”) Instead, the issue was the communication methods around these beliefs, “creating a textbook hostile environment.” That’s illegal, full-stop.

By guiding conversations toward delivery and impact, (“What happens when you write a 10-page memo claiming one-third of your colleagues are biologically inferior?” “Here’s how I would feel if I were a female engineer on his team and read this…”) you can actually start these conversations from a place of alignment and show that Damore’s actions helped no one, including himself. Then you can agree that we all want essentially the same thing — to be productive and valued at work, while collaborating with capable co-workers who share your sentiments and goals. Then maybe, maaaaaybe you can engage in a healthy debate about the problematic content. But you can’t skip to it.

4. Lead by example

One of the hardest things about being a manager or in HR is that your job is to process your own emotions quickly so you can do your job. With awareness, you are less likely to act on emotional impulse and say something you might regret — the effects of which, in your position, are amplified.

As a woman in tech, as a Diversity & Inclusion advocate, as a human being: my individual and private stance is of dissent, frustration, and exhaustion of having to repeat the same arguments about the benefits and importance of championing D&I. However, as a professional, I aim to model behaviors that lead to more productive conversations — truly seeking to understand then going from there.

This doesn’t mean my emotions or subjective opinions don’t exist, but I’m going to need to draw upon a lot more than just my feelings to Do The Work. Fighting fire with fire is easy. De-escalation is hard. And some days, I feel like I just have no patience/energy left. But no disagreement was ever solved by refusing to hear someone out.

It’s not my job to evaluate whether someone’s emotions are valid, they just are. Emotions don’t go away, and I wonder if that’s why Damore wrote his manifesto in the first place — because he felt like he had to create his own explosive platform for expressing his views.

Seek to de-escalate as much as possible, and approach each conversation with authenticity.

Where do we go from here?

The Google Manifesto debate is just the latest in the much larger conversation happening in tech, in Diversity & Inclusion, and People orgs. And as frustrating and exhausting these incidents can be, I remain an optimist for where we’re headed.

Progress is hard to see when you’re in it. What used to be hidden under NDAs and swept under the rug by complicit leadership, is increasingly being discussed in the open. Only when we look backwards will we be able to truly see the progress we’ve made, integrate the lessons learned, and appreciate those who are fighting for the cause.

And you have a part to play. You have the opportunity to get ahead of the conversation, set rules of engagement, de-tangle the issues, and lead by example. Not doing so will only create further polarization and alienation of allies. Or, you can create a space where people feel safe to talk about important topics, learn from each other, and re-dedicate themselves to building inclusive teams.

I’m happy to clarify any points, and good luck to everyone leading/participating in these convos in your teams!


For more tips on this topic, I’ve written more about how to address detractors, apathy, and lack of results in When Things Go Wrong in D&I.” Harvard Business Review also has a great post: How to Speak Up If You See Bias at Work.

And if you’re feeling intimidated or powerless, remember that one person can make a big difference: like the Uber engineer whose story served as one of the catalysts for this on-going, much larger conversation.


Connect with me on Linkedin and find me on Twitter — I’m a former recruiter and write about tips, learnings, mistakes, and everything in-between.

Thanks to Rachael Stedman for edits. Photo cred Lee-Sean.