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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Google wants a workplace free of intimidation and bias, and it decided a worker's memo blaming biological differences for the paucity of women in tech meant he didn't fit in.

Thursday, August 10, 2017 1:00 am

When views get you fired

Tech giant justified in tossing staffer for memo, experts say

BARBARA ORTUTAY | Associated Press

NEW YORK – The Google engineer who blamed biological differences for the paucity of women in tech had every right to express his views. And Google likely had every right to fire him, workplace experts and lawyers say.

Special circumstances – the country's divisive political climate, Silicon Valley's broader problem with gender equity – contributed to the outrage and subsequent firing. But the fallout should still serve as a warning to anyone in any industry expressing unpopular, fiery viewpoints.

“Anyone who makes a statement like this and expects to stick around ... is foolish,” said David Lewis, CEO of Operations Inc., a human resources consulting firm.

The engineer, James Damore, wrote a memo criticizing Google for pushing mentoring and diversity programs and for “alienating conservatives.” The parts that drew the most outrage made such assertions as women “prefer jobs in social and artistic areas” and have a “lower stress tolerance” and “harder time” leading, while more men “may like coding because it requires systemizing.”

Google's code of conduct says workers “are expected to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias, and unlawful discrimination.” Google's CEO, Sundar Picahi, said Damore violated this code.

Yonatan Zunger, who recently left Google as a senior engineer, wrote in a Medium post that he would have had no choice but to fire Damore had he been his supervisor.

“Do you understand that at this point, I could not in good conscience assign anyone to work with you?” he wrote. “I certainly couldn't assign any women to deal with this, a good number of the people you might have to work with may simply punch you in the face.”

Though one might argue for a right to free speech, however unpopular, such protections are generally limited to government and other public employees – and to unionized workers with rights to disciplinary hearings before any firing.

Broader protections are granted to comments about workplace conditions. Damore argues in a federal labor complaint that this applies to his case, but experts disagree.

“By posting that memo, he forfeited his job,” said Jennifer Lee Magas, public relations professor at Pace University and a former employment law attorney.

“He was fired for his words, but also for being daft enough to post these thoughts on an open workplace forum, where he was sure to be met with backlash and to offend his colleagues – male and female alike.”