I am disappointed but unsurprised by the news that an anti-diversity, sexist, manifesto is making the rounds at Google. This is not entirely new behavior. Google has seen hints of this in the past, with employees sharing blog posts about their racist beliefs and the occasional internal mailing list question, “innocently” asking if Black people aren’t more likely to be violent. What is new is that this employee felt safe enough to write and share an 8 page sexist screed, internally.
Aside from how they’re going to repair the damage of this event (of which there will be much), the most important question we should be asking of leaders at Google and that they should be asking of themselves is this: why is the environment at Google such that racists and sexists feel supported and safe in sharing these views in the company? What about the company culture sends the message that sharing sexism and racism will be accepted? What message and values have past words, actions and lack thereof sent to the employees at Google. What has shaped the culture thus far, to get to this point? In short, Google leadership should do a post-mortem, a real one, on how the company got to this place where they’ve experienced such a catastrophic failure in their culture, assuming it is indeed viewed as such.
The second most important question leaders at Google need to discuss is this: do we want this to be an environment where racists and sexists feel safe and supported to share their views? Answering this question will likely be very hard and scary for execs at Google and at any tech company. Because saying no to that question means they would have to set policy to create an environment that is not a safe-harbor for bigots. It would mean defining real consequences for demeaning, insulting and ridiculing minorities, immigrants and the physically/mentally disabled. It would mean angering the “high-performers” who are also bigots. It would mean many fights about “free speech” and what it means at the company. It would mean that some people might quit, including some of the “high-performers.”
Saying yes to that question (and so it’s clear, choosing not to answer that question is the equivalent of saying yes to it) means a company should give up any notions of being diverse or inclusive. Saying “we want an environment that allows all opinions and a free exchange of ideas” to that question means a company has deemed racism and sexism viable opinions, worthy of being freely exchanged, instead of the hatred and bigotry that they are. That message will be heard loud and clear by the targets of said hatred and bigotry, and will be antithetical to any other attempts at building a diverse and inclusive company. Employees will tell their friends (or the media in this case) about what the company is really about, and any efforts at improving diversity will be hampered. Inclusion will be a non-starter, since employees cannot feel included in an environment where their peers believe they aren’t worthy of being there and will say so, freely. Employees cannot advance in a system that is built on peer evaluation if their peers believe them to be fundamentally subpar. Employees cannot feel a sense of belonging or, as Google itself told us, thrive in an environment when they do not feel psychologically safe.
Leaders need to choose what kind of company cultures they want to build and who they want to feel safe, valued, and supported in within them.
We’re in a very precarious time in Silicon Valley and in our nation. As I predicted, the previously quiet bigots are becoming emboldened by what is happening in our nation. We’re at a point where tech company leaders can no longer pretend that tech is isolated from the ills and woes of society at large; it is not. They can no longer equivocate on the subjects of sexism, racism, or bigotry of any sort. They need to be very clear and proactive in messaging about what their company stands for and values, and their actions need to speak as loudly as their words do. Either they approve of bigotry being part of their company culture, or they work to ensure that everyone knows that it will not be tolerated.