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. Continue reading