The perspective Ethics Alarms readers often add to topics based on their personal experiences is a often great enhancement to the discussions here. This Comment of the Day by Alex is a perfect example, as he clarifies the context of the Google diversity memo through his own observations as an employee of another large tech company.
Here is his Comment of the Day on the post, “The Viral Google Diversity Memo”:
Rather than rehash the memo or analyze it or say what is right or wrong with its reasoning, I’ll instead add my experience dealing with internal policies and “requests for comment” at a large tech (software) company – this is a direct competitor of Google, based in the Pacific NW and employing ~100,000 people (you can figure out who they are with that). My background is in Electrical Engineering with a strong focus on Computer Science, and I was hired by my previous employer just out of college after spending a summer internship with them. I worked there for 12 years, until the summer of 2016 (actually today is my one year anniversary at my new job). In my time there I can only describe diversity and HR policies around race and gender are schizophrenic, even if well-intentioned. These are my stories [insert Law and Order opening notes].
The official harassment/discrimination policy as stated in the employee handbook (which was updated every year) is incredibly vague, and this is intentional (although no one will come out and accept it publicly). We are in an at-will state, so you can be easily dismissed based on that one vague rule; and it has been used as a negotiation tactic on borderline performance dismissals to settle for a lower severance package. (“Do you really want us to state that you’re leaving for violations of the harassment policy? No? Ok, how about you settle for 2 weeks instead of 4?”) But I also have to state that the cases where I saw this section being arguably misused can be counted with the fingers of one hand. Also, I am certain that there are good intentions behind this policy, but as is the case with many well-intentioned rules, it is when the rubber meets the road that things get messy.
Every year we had to take Standards of Conduct training. Every year we had a new edition, and every year there was at least one case study dealing with gender or racial discrimination. Some years were better than others, but in general the training was terrible. If you had the cognitive abilities of a 7-year-old you could figure out what were the right responses without watching the videos or reading the policies. (The Saturday morning cartoons I watched in the 80s – G.I. Joe, He-Man, Transformers – had more complex moral dilemmas). I remember one year around the middle of my tenure when the videos and cases were actually interesting and engaging. A case that I still remember from that time is about an ambiguous situation between a male manager and a female engineer not in the same chain of command. There was a big internal debate about that one, and the next year we had the blandest possible training to avoid controversies.
The above two points are to set the stage: corporate policies are clear, you should toe the line, do not do anything that might be misconstrued, you can be dismissed for very small transgressions.
And then… well… tech companies are rebels, they thrive in chaos, and you’re expected to rock the boat. In many (may be even all) groups you can only grow so much by being a technical expert, you are expected to influence larger and larger teams as you get promoted to keep getting good performance reviews. You can be the only expert on a certain software component, but unless other people know about you and have been “influenced” by you, you are not considered good enough. This has the effect of incentivizing “visibility”. Other people and other teams should know you exist and be willing to state that you’ve had a positive impact for the company.
[Tangent here: during my last year, the official mission of the company changed from something vaguely technology related (years before it was blatantly computer centric) to a wishy-washy statement that can be summarized as “making the world a better place”. I was involved in a focus group about what we thought of the new mission. I clearly stated that if that was the new mission, my division was definitely not contributing to that and quite possibly doing the opposite. This had the effect of encouraging another member of my extended team to mirror my observations much more forcefully. This guy left the company a few weeks later, whether it was his decision or not I never found out.]
At this place we had a number of groups and initiative pushing for getting innovative things done. I was involved in some of them. I participated in after hours hackatons creating prototype projects that may or may not be later integrated into products or become new ones (on one of them I did get to meet the designer of a *very* popular collectible card game). And well, some of these side jobs you take (for no extra pay, obviously) involved not technical, but organizational issues. Things like how to improve our recruitment, improve the interview and hiring process, etc. I helped with tours and talks for HS students (sometimes focused on minorities and females).
We also had a number of internal communications channels that could reach from a dozen to a few thousand fellow employees. Some of them were for formal interactions and project management. Others were more social in nature. A tiny fraction were tied to the “improve innovation” charter that I previously described.
Now time for some speculation… I can perfectly see an innocent if somewhat controversial conversation happening between colleagues at one of these after hours meetings. I can even see the HR team being the ones to get the ball rolling to see if the engineers had any insights to help with the challenges they’re facing (like diversity, for example). Upper management stands behind all these initiatives too, and the mantra of being “open”, “overcommunicating”, and “rocking the boat” is repeated by everyone. You participate in these, you are expected to come up with unorthodox ideas and be able to share them safely.
At this point a young and smart engineer raises the issue that maybe the way diversity hiring is being approached is naive with regards to gender, and that looking deeper into preferences, motivations, and evolutionary imperatives might give a better picture and can improve the hiring rate for women. A few people in that group get excited and the facilitator encourages this guy to polish the idea. He does some research and writes a memo, circulates it with close colleagues from that group and even gets some suggestions on how to improve it. Citations get added, incomplete ideas get polished or cut, the text is edited to avoid implying anything bad about the people and focuses on the process being dissected and improved. (I will add that if you’ve ever read your regular top-tier computer engineer writings, you would bet dollars to donuts that Mr. Damore’s memo had at least one copyeditor)
When it’s advanced enough, you share it with the original group, and after some positive feedback it starts making its way into larger and larger groups, until it hits a critical mass and goes viral. Now it is reaching people who do not have the context of how it was developed, what its goals are and are possibly unfamiliar with the terminology used (I’ve seen criticism around the use of “neuroticism” in the memo, but if you’re familiar with psychology there is no reason to take that as insulting). It just has to fall into the lap of a hyperactive social justice advocate (I won’t use that other term here) and then there is a complaint up the management chain and with HR. The company is now in reactive mode and has to do a thorough investigation of what happened, regardless of merit. Some other activist familiar with the problem and seeing very little progress decides that the only way to get traction is to leak to the public and suddenly it is on everyone’s Facebook page. (I will note that with the notable exception of Apple, tech companies leak their internal secrets like a sieve.)
The company is now forced to react. If the internal outrage was containable and a reasonable solution could be found, by now that option is off the table. Management is forced to react swiftly and forcefully for the perceived transgression. Their job is to ensure the company’s reputation is protected, so the actions they take may or may not be appropriate for the original problem.
As you can see, there was no catastrophic fault (although many little ones along the way, except for the leak), but the thing has now rolled out of control and there are no good options for anyone. This is one of the reasons I think everyone should study Systems Engineering (the dynamics type, not the computers type); consequences are usually four, five or a dozen steps isolated from their original cause.
I will close with one final anecdote from my first couple of years. On one of these internal lists I made the comment that management did not recognize and promote good QA engineers, so the good ones became developers to continue advancing their careers. As a consequence, the testing groups were staffed with engineers who were very junior or did not have the drive or ability to earn a promotion. My suggestion was to make a clear career path for testers to grow. What actually happened is that a very senior engineer (not from my group) gave me a very public talking to for implying that testers were not as good as developers. Many shared my opinion, but no one came to my defense. The irony is that this guy was not a tester or manager, and his attitude was just perpetuating the status quo. Later in my career a similar conversation about both QA engineers and HR recruiters came up (My wife is an HR professional and her take on recruiting is very similar to mine on QA: “management does not really care, so top talent does not stay in that area”). This time I kept my mouth shut.
In summary, lots of little and mostly harmless decisions probably caused the Google Memo blowup. Big tech companies want to control their employees and have them be innovators, so they give conflicting messages. Naive engineers inadvertently put themselves in these deathtraps and then it all explodes because there are terrible people in this world.