• Google employee James Damore was fired Monday for writing an anti-diversity manifesto.
• In most cases, private US companies are within their rights to terminate employees based on speech.
• There’s a right way and a wrong way to debate a controversial topic.
The incident and ensuing controversy is a good reminder for us all to think twice about being outspoken at work, and it highlights two important points about taking on controversial topics in the workplace:
1. You could get fired.
As we previously reported when the US election was more of a hot topic in the workplace, as an employee expressing yourself at work, you have fewer protections than you’d think. And if your boss doesn’t like what they hear, you could get fired for it.
Damore’s memo criticised Google’s measures to promote gender and racial diversity and proposed that gender disparity in the tech industry may have biological roots.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent out a company-wide memo on Monday saying that parts of Damore’s manifesto “cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.” Shortly thereafter, Damore told Bloomberg he was fired for “perpetuating gender stereotypes.”
Damore’s memo received support from alt-right figures, and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who The New York Times reports has already offered Damore a new job, called Google’s decision to terminate the engineer “censorship.”
The New York Times also reported that Damore is eyeing legal action against Google.
But the issue is most likely not a free speech matter, as some have suggested. As Business Insider’s Jim Edwards explains, he likely doesn’t have much of a case.
That’s because, for the most part, it’s not illegal in the United States for bosses to terminate employees based on speech.
- According to the nonprofit Workplace Fairness: “Political activity retaliation is not covered by the federal laws that generally prohibit retaliation based on race, colour, sex, religion, national origin, age, and disability for private employers, or by the laws protecting against retaliation on the basis of union or concerted activity.”
- That doesn’t mean your manager is necessarily held to the same standards — companies can endorse and campaign for political candidates, thanks to The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.
- According to a 2016 Harvard University study, 25% of 1,032 survey respondents said their bosses had sent them politically focused messages.
- The US Constitution’s First Amendment protects you from the government infringing upon your speech, according to the blog of the law firm Parks, Chesin, and Walbert.
- But there are caveats. Public sector workers tend to enjoy more free speech in the workplace than private sector workers.
- In certain states like New York and California — where Damore is believed to have been employed — there are more restrictions. In those states, bosses cannot discriminate based on employees’ political activities or beliefs (unless it interferes with their work).
- Edwards reports that The Shouse California Law Group, which often represents individuals who were fired for expressing free speech, has said that California law only protects employees dismissed over “political activity outside of work.” (Damore used an internal mailing list owned by Google to spread his manifesto.)
2. There’s a right way and a wrong way to debate an issue.
Damore’s comments about gender and Google’s initiatives to close the gap sparked anger from his coworkers and ultimately brought about the end of his career at Google.
His memo goes to show that there is a right way and a wrong way to debate an issue. The right way to discuss controversial topics at work is to do so respectfully.
Here’s an easy rule-of-thumb to remember: You should generally steer clear of any remarks that evoke sentiments of “you people.” In other words, don’t make personal attacks on people or groups of people — keep it civil.
As Pichai wrote in his memo, “People must feel free to express dissent.” Indeed, the Google CEO acknowledged the importance of calling into question the company’s trainings, programs, and ideology.
Where Damore crossed the line was by suggesting a group his coworkers are biologically ill-suited to their work.
At the end of the day, it’s a good idea to remember that you’re not doing your best work when you’re more focused on defending your hot takes. Passionate discussions are to be expected in the workplace, but they should really be moving things forward.
The truth is that you’re at work to do work — and many arguments aren’t worth distracting both you and your coworkers, nor the repercussions they might bring about.
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