Surprise: As Employees Fear Reprisals for Speaking Out, Google Cancels Town Hall Meeting

Posted: Aug 11, 2017 1:25 PM

Yesterday, Google abruptly canceled a planned town hall meeting, citing concerns that employees do not feel free or safe to air their views -- including widespread fears of being "named" or "outed" externally.  The company's CEO lamented in a company-wide email that despite his goal of having a "frank, open discussion" (this is rich coming from the same guy who just fired James Damore), the event had to be jettisoned, in favor of yet-unannounced alternative forums.  Here's the Thursday memo:

My absolute favorite part of this, hands down, is the bit where Sundar Pichai assures his workforce that "the vast majority of you are very supportive of our decision" to fire Damore for the crime of critiquing Google's diversity regime and ideological insularity on in-house message boards.  Yes, I'm sure that must be an accurate reflection of how people feel.  After all, what might possibly prevent more dissenters from speaking up?  How gobsmackingly obtuse.  It's mindless confirmation bias at work, reinforced by a culture of hostility and punishment toward 'wrong thinkers.'  It seems Mr. Pichai might be stunned to learn that an anonymous survey of Googlers finds that a clear majority opposes his decision to purge Damore:

Blind, an anonymous corporate networking app, surveyed its users from over 4,000 different companies on their thoughts regarding Google’s firing of software engineer James Damore, according to Business Insider. At Google, 56 percent of the 441 employees surveyed opposed their company’s decision to fire Damore. Blind also reported employee opinions across other tech companies, which seem to support the fired software engineer. A majority of Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon employees surveyed also opposed Google’s decision by margins of 57-43, 56-44, and 54-46, respectively. Nearly two-thirds of Uber’s employees surveyed also opposed the choice to terminate Damore.

This is a quasi-scientific online survey that only draws from users of the app, so its results are not necessarily reflective of the entire Google community. But I wonder if the poll might be much more representative than, say, the direct feedback a heavy-handed CEO is receiving from subordinates wishing to remain employed? Just a thought. The other sentence from the executive's missive that stuck out to me is this one: "All of your voices and opinions matter...and I want to hear them." Really? He might as well have added, "some exceptions apply, and continued employment outcomes may vary."  I'd suggest Mr. Pichai Google the term "self awareness," but it's unclear if that would do much good.  Meanwhile, New York Times columnist David Brooks is out with a strong, withering column calling for Pichai's resignation over his gross mishandling of this situation.  Some highlights:

There are many actors in the whole Google/diversity drama, but I’d say the one who’s behaved the worst is the C.E.O., Sundar Pichai...[He is] the supposed grown-up in the room. He could have wrestled with the tension between population-level research and individual experience. He could have stood up for the free flow of information. Instead he joined the mob. He fired Damore and wrote, “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not O.K.”  That is a blatantly dishonest characterization of the memo. Damore wrote nothing like that about his Google colleagues. Either Pichai is unprepared to understand the research (unlikely), is not capable of handling complex data flows (a bad trait in a C.E.O.) or was simply too afraid to stand up to a mob. Regardless which weakness applies, this episode suggests he should seek a nonleadership position. We are at a moment when mobs on the left and the right ignore evidence and destroy scapegoats. That’s when we need good leaders most.

Three cheers for standing up to End of Discussion mobs.  Brooks also defends Damore's memo on the merits, citing evolutionary psychologists and other experts (quotes: "The author of the Google essay on issues related to diversity gets nearly all of the science and its implications exactly right," and "almost all of the Google memo’s empirical claims are scientifically accurate. Moreover, they are stated quite carefully and dispassionately" and, "as a woman who’s worked in academia and within STEM, I didn’t find the memo offensive or sexist in the least. I found it to be a well thought out document") who've backed up its core assertions:

In [the commentary], Damore was trying to explain why 80 percent of Google’s tech employees are male. He agreed that there are large cultural biases but also pointed to a genetic component. Then he described some of the ways the distribution of qualities differs across male and female populations. Damore was tapping into the long and contentious debate about genes and behavior. On one side are those who believe that humans come out as blank slates and are formed by social structures. On the other are the evolutionary psychologists who argue that genes interact with environment and play a large role in shaping who we are. In general the evolutionary psychologists have been winning this debate. When it comes to the genetic differences between male and female brains, I’d say the mainstream view is that male and female abilities are the same across the vast majority of domains — I.Q., the ability to do math, etc.

But there are some ways that male and female brains are, on average, different. There seems to be more connectivity between the hemispheres, on average, in female brains. Prenatal exposure to different levels of androgen does seem to produce different effects throughout the life span...Damore was especially careful to say this research applies only to populations, not individuals: “Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population-level distributions.” That’s the crucial point. But of course we don’t live as populations; we live our individual lives.

He also savages the media, which richly deserves savaging:

The coverage of the memo has been atrocious. As Conor Friedersdorf wrote in The Atlantic, “I cannot remember the last time so many outlets and observers mischaracterized so many aspects of a text everyone possessed.” Various reporters and critics apparently decided that Damore opposes all things Enlightened People believe and therefore they don’t have to afford him the basic standards of intellectual fairness. The mob that hounded Damore was like the mobs we’ve seen on a lot of college campuses. We all have our theories about why these moral crazes are suddenly so common. I’d say that radical uncertainty about morality, meaning and life in general is producing intense anxiety. Some people embrace moral absolutism in a desperate effort to find solid ground. They feel a rare and comforting sense of moral certainty when they are purging an evil person who has violated one of their sacred taboos.

To that point, I'll leave you with this cringeworthy compilation from the Free Beacon. "Atrocious" is right: