How calls for “civility” are harming tech companies
And what CEOs should do to protect their businesses
As a 20-year veteran of the tech industry, I’m familiar with calls for “civility” in discourse — and the harm they often do to diversity and inclusion. Just last week, game developer Jessica Price, prompted by a man explaining a basic concept of game design to her, described a well-documented pattern of bias facing women professionals: amateur men assuming she is incompetent and telling her how to do her job, then expecting a polite and caring response. Rather than supporting Price, her employer fired her for not being “open” and “polite” enough — an example of the exact form of gender bias she was describing.
In my experience, calls for “civility” in tech companies are most common in response to an employee objecting to bias against a marginalized group. For example, a Google employee was formally reprimanded by HR for describing another employee’s comment as “unequivocally racist,” a Linux developer was criticized for using profanity while calling for an end to verbal abuse in the community, and a Yelp customer service employee was fired after she wrote an impassioned blog post asking Yelp to pay her a living wage.
Management is often ill-equipped to handle these kinds of conflicts.
The initial problem — an incident of bias against a marginalized group — may be so common and normalized as to seem acceptable to many people. But the objection to the bias seems easier to identify as wrong: You called someone racist! You used a cuss word! You wrote an angry blog post! And that’s how you end up in a situation where a game development company in a field desperate to increase its representation of women ends up firing a woman game developer for fighting bias against women.
How can you avoid this self-defeating pattern of valuing civility and politeness above fighting the bias and discrimination that is measurably harming your company?
1. Put the value of civility into context. Civility is only one of many competing values in a company culture. When you catch an employee embezzling company funds, do you worry about offending them by cutting off their access to the company bank account? When an employee is underperforming, do you say nothing for fear of hurting their feelings? When you’re searching for a law firm to defend your company from a competitor’s lawsuit, do you choose the firm with the politest lawyers? No, because civility comes second to safeguarding your company’s funds, managing your employees’ performance, and winning lawsuits.
Likewise, civility should come second to protecting your employees from bias, increasing diversity and inclusion at your company, and complying with anti-discrimination laws.
2. Learn to recognize when calls for civility are actually requests to stop pointing out bias. There is a specific name for this: tone policing. Tone policing is when someone derails the conversation from the actual argument someone is making, and changes the topic to criticizing their “tone” — how they made the argument. In many cases, when someone is objecting to the “tone” of an argument, they are really objecting to anyone pointing out anything that might make them feel bad. Since pointing out their own complicity in bias makes them feel bad, it becomes impossible to make any argument against — or even name — bias in a way that the “tone police” find acceptable.
To compound the problem, marginalized people are often expected to be more polite and respectful than people with more privilege, subjecting them to an unfair double standard in the workplace.
3. Prepare for people deliberately abusing the concept of civility. Google employees describe a pattern of weaponizing “civility” in discussions of diversity on internal mailing lists. One tactic diversity opponents use is provocation: demanding that diversity advocates answer the same basic questions over and over, until someone loses patience and replies in an “uncivil” manner. Then they report the diversity advocate’s reply to HR, who, lacking the context of the continuous bad-faith demands for explanation, punishes the person who actually cares about the company’s well-being. Diversity opponents also leak replies to hate groups outside the company, who then target diversity advocates with external harassment campaigns, as happened to several Google employees, and to a trans woman manager at Facebook.
In this way, employees acting in bad faith can trick a company into driving away or firing some of its most valuable employees.
Ellen Pao, Project Include CEO, reports a growing trend in which tech employees deliberately attack their employer as part of larger coordinated social movements promoting white supremacy, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, and many other forms of oppression. “I hear every day from tech employees and executives, and many tell me in painstaking detail about how hate groups are using tech platforms and workplace communities to spread their ideas, onboard new recruits, and train them on how to execute these ideas in their companies,” writes Pao.
Many of these techniques were tested in online communities before being deployed at tech companies. In 2015, a volunteer working to increase the percentage of women editors of Wikipedia was banned from editing Wikipedia for having a “battleground mentality,” while the volunteers who were harassing her with fake pornography and sexist profanity were protected by the committee that mediates volunteer disputes — mirroring techniques currently used at Google. At Facebook, employees are complaining about what they describe as “alt-right tactics” being used to shut down discussions about diversity.
To avoid your company becoming the next battleground for organized hate groups, train your managers and human resources staff to recognize and correctly respond to attacks by your employees, including provocation, tone policing, derailing, and double standards for politeness. In addition to training, review and update your company values and/or code of conduct. A common mistake is the inclusion of “assume positive intent” or a similar guideline in your company values or code of conduct. As Annalee Flower Horne explains, telling your employees to always assume positive intent harms diversity and inclusion by putting marginalized people at a huge structural disadvantage, because they are more likely to be the target of bias, intentional or unintentional.
We see some signs of tech companies making progress in understanding the new cultural landscape. Google recently announced important changes to its internal code of conduct designed to reduce the impact of organized harassment and discrimination by its employees. While the updated policies still focus too heavily on civility and not enough on power imbalances, employees targeted by harassment are cautiously optimistic. “I’m hopeful that we will see our culture improve over the next few months,” said Liz Fong-Jones, a Google site reliability engineer viewed by many as an expert in identifying and countering harassment.
Calls for civility are often simply calls to accept and support bias in the workplace.
To prevent this, your company should prioritize fighting bias over civility, recognize that some employees deliberately use the concept of civility to further the goals of organized hate groups, and train employees to recognize and reject false appeals to civility. If you succeed, you will stop hate groups from damaging the health and competitiveness of your tech company.