TECHNOLOGY

Controversy Over Diversity Manifesto Reveals Google’s Ugly Secret: Blacklists

Is publishing an attack on political correctness a fireable offense? Is blacklisting coworkers who disagree with you? These are the tough questions facing Google.

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BY Sonya Mann - 08 Aug 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

On Friday night, Vice's Motherboard reported that a controversial internal memo written by a concerned Google employee was going viral within the company. The memo, titled "PC Considered Harmful" and since dubbed "the Google manifesto" on social media, argued two points: First, that Google has become an ideological echo chamber where anyone with centrist or right-of-center views fears to speak their mind. Second, that part of the tech industry's gender gap can be attributed to biological differences between men and women.

This news caused an immediate and lasting uproar, both within Google and on public discussion forums like Twitter. The dismay and outrage -- and then the inevitable counter-outrage in response to the initial outrage -- heated up further when Gizmodo released the full text of the open letter. Critics have primarily focused on author James Damore's implication that women are less prevalent in software engineering and leadership roles due to the unequal distribution of innate characteristics like spatial reasoning and neuroticism. Update: Damore has since been fired, Bloomberg reported.

Within Google, a few sympathetic employees were dismayed to see Damore so vehemently criticized by their colleagues. In a poll distributed on a mailing list dedicated to discussing the manifesto, opinion broke down differently than it did in non-anonymous internal Google Plus posts:

The contentious internal discussion revived a concern dating back to 2015: An unknown number of Google managers keep blacklists of employees whom they say they will not work with. The blacklists are based factors including personal experience of others' behavior and views expressed on politics, social justice issues and Google's diversity efforts. Inc. reviewed screenshots documenting several managers attesting to this practice, both in the past and currently. The screenshots were shared by a Google employee who requested anonymity due to having signed an NDA. In the screenshots, one employee declared his intent to quit if the manifesto's author were not fired, and another said he would refuse to work with the manifesto's author in any capacity.

A Google spokesperson told Inc. that the practice of keeping blacklists is not condoned by upper management, and that Google employees who discriminate against members of protected classes will be terminated. But it's far from clear whether that applies here. Although political affiliation is a protected class according to California labor law, the views expressed by the manifesto author and others who oppose political correctness do not seem to merit some protection. (Indeed, Google's decision to fire Damore suggests the company concluded they don't, although its slowness in acting suggests it was not an easy call.)

Damore's manifesto wasn't classic political speech, said Harmeet Kaur Dhillon, an experienced business and labor lawyer. Rather, it's what she labeled "controversial speech." She added, "These are not insane views that he's extolling here -- they're [just] out of the mainstream. He's entitled to hold views that are inconsistent with the mainstream."

As to whether Google is free to fire the manifesto author and those who voice agreement -- or even has an obligation to do so -- "the question is whether he's acting on those views in a way that violates discrimination law." Dhillon noted that although California has stronger labor protections than most other states, "The cases involving political speech are much more cut-and-dried," involving conventional political activities like voting for a candidate or running for office.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Damore has been publicly identified as the manifesto's author and fired from Google.