Talent Management Column

Learning from the Google Diversity Debacle

It's almost taken for granted that most companies have diversity policies and training programs. But it's not clear that employees understand why companies have them or how they work.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017
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One valuable lesson that leaders should take from Google's internal unpleasantness about increasing gender diversity is that employees may not always be clear about a company's take on diversity or how to achieve it.

Google engineer James Damore's viral memo about the company's approach to increasing gender diversity and his subsequent firing surfaced issues that are not going away. Damore's view about the biological origins of the lack of women in engineering is an eye-roller to anyone with passing familiarity with the social sciences. The fact that women are physically different than men is not evidence that they are the inevitable cause of different outcomes in the job market, and we have overwhelming evidence of many powerful factors within society's control that do affect those outcomes, why women get the jobs they do, such as how societal norms track them toward certain occupations and not others.

But Google's decision to fire Damore, while at the same time trying to remind its employees that Google is a safe place to express even minority views on topics like diversity, is one of the bigger corporate gaffes in recent memory. As my radio co-host and lawyer Dan O'Meara noted, the loudest lesson from the incident is a reminder that your bosses can fire you for saying anything they disagree with.

This probably isn't what Google had in mind, and leads me to two lessons leaders should learn from the Damore memo.

First, if your organization is advancing diversity and inclusion, be able to articulate why you are doing it. The most damning thing for Google about Damore's post is that seriously he believed that the reason behind the company's diversity program was politics, that the leaders of the company are liberals.

There are lots of good business reasons for organizations to advance diversity that have nothing to do with any political values.  For one, it's the law. Employers get in trouble if their workforce even looks like it is influenced by discrimination. Government contractors are required to have programs of affirmative action – a step beyond most diversity initiatives – to advance the hiring and promotion of women and minorities.

Customers and other stakeholder interests also matter. It may surprise those not close to business to learn that companies are now often asked to report on the diversity of their workforce when they bid on business or respond to requests for proposals.

In cases where companies feel that it is important to have more women in certain roles, they might explain this as equivalent of a defense contractor wanting to hire candidates with military backgrounds. In this case, gender is the equivalent of "merit."

If your employees believe, as apparently Damore did about Google, that the reason you have a diversity and inclusion program is because it fits the political views of the leaders, you've got a big credibility problem justifying why you do anything. So explain exactly what you're doing and why, and don't be vague.

The second lesson, and arguably the more difficult one, has to do with the choice of practices used to advance diversity. Organizations are in a bind in this one, and it is important for employees to know that: On the one hand, they are pressed by the government and other stakeholders to have more diverse workforces, but on the other, court rulings prohibit them from the most direct way to advance diversity, which is to make gender or minority status a hiring and promotion. So instead, they have to pursue diversity indirectly with programs that try to achieve that end without doing so explicitly, such as with mentoring programs now popular in some Silicon Valley companies that help guide women and minorities to promotions.   

The most troublesome of these are diversity training programs. They are the focus of Damore's complaint about Google, and he's not alone. As Harvard sociology professor Frank Dobbin and his colleagues have shown, typical diversity training programs appear to backfire and lead to less diverse outcomes, in large part because they focus on the attitudes of white men (who find the programs irritating).

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Many of these programs go beyond those that tell us how to behave at the workplace (initiatives to stop sexual harassment, for example) and try to get at what we think (e.g. unconscious bias training). Even if you haven't done anything objectionable, the reasoning goes, we are going to try to convince you that the way you think is problematic and needs to change.

To many people, this seems like a major overreach by employers: You can already tell me how to act and what I can say, not only at work but elsewhere. But please stay out of my head.

Most of James Damore's memo at Google was asking the company to explain why it uses the diversity programs it does. Google's answer was "no." But it doesn't have to be your company's response. As Dobbin's work has found, one of the most effective ways to advance diversity in the workplace is to engage men in the process of solving the problem.

So as your company embarks on its own diversity initiatives, remember that you do need the support of current employees for the programs to succeed, and it you can't – or won't - explain your decisions clearly to employees, you may want to rethink your strategy entirely.

Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. His latest book is "Will College Pay Off? A Guide to the Most Important Financial Decision You'll Ever Make."


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