Google’s New Diversity VP Tested by Internal Controversy

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When a company is as big as Google, its dirty laundry becomes everyone's business. What might make for mere buzz around the water cooler at a more humble organization can turn into an industry-wide debate.

Such is the case with a long "manifesto" decrying efforts at addressing diversity that has been making the rounds inside Google via internal message boards and social networks. The author, a male software engineer, argues that there are inherent differences between men and women that account for perceived gender gaps (rather than sexism), that efforts to correct for those differences amount to discrimination and that discussing these issues is culturally forbidden because of an "authoritarian" ideology.

Thus Google's Danielle Brown, who took up the mantle of vice president of diversity, integrity & governance at the end of June, already finds herself in a delicate internal communications (IC) test. Unlike many IC tests, though, this one is very much a public relations test as well—it's a foregone conclusion that communications regarding this controversy will be leaked, and indeed, Brown's employee memo has been. An excerpt:

Many of you have read an internal document shared by someone in our engineering organization, expressing views on the natural abilities and characteristics of different genders, as well as whether one can speak freely of these things at Google. And like many of you, I found that it advanced incorrect assumptions about gender. I'm not going to link to it here as it's not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes or encourages.

Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions. But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.

It's a nicely worded memo, if not one that's likely to mollify the manifesto author and his sympathizers. But probably the most important thing it accomplishes is to serve as Google's semi-public, semi-official statement of its guiding principles in response to being unwillingly thrust into a political debate.

The question for most of us is whether we might someday be in a similar position, and the answer is closer to "yes" than we might think. Even though your internal controversies probably won't be broadcast as far as Google's, your brand and what its employees think might be viewed with just as much interest by a more niche demographic. A dramatic episode inside Fender Musical Instruments Corp. might never appear in the pages of the New York Times, but rest assured, musicians will be paying attention.

Therefore, it's prudent for any brand to decide what its principles are on an issue like this one, if not to communicate them to the world proactively then at least to respond in a timely manner with a viewpoint agreed upon by leadership. Dragging the C-suite and the board of directors out of bed at midnight to have a political and philosophical discussion should not be a prerequisite for you to give a response.

UPDATE: Later in the day on Aug. 7, Google CEO Sundar Pichai fired the software engineer who wrote the internal document, citing the advancing of "harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace."

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