I’ve been in HR in the tech industry for over 20 years. It takes a lot to shock me. But when I learned Google fired the male engineer who authored the now-notorious gender inequality memo, I was surprised. It’s not the termination that shocked me—it’s the speed at which it all came to a head.
Of course, I’m not on Google’s HR team, so I will never know how they handled this investigation. It may have been thorough and exhaustive. From an outside perspective, the decision to terminate appears swift and decisive. But by firing him in less than 24 hours, the company added fuel to a very public fire, rather than try to defuse the situation.
My guess is that Google made the move because the company wants to be clear about what it stands for. It accomplished that. But this lightning-fast termination could stunt Google’s ability to understand why the situation happened in the first place. That takes time, and it’s hard to do in a day. You have to examine everything—what pushed the engineer to put these thoughts in writing, what portions of the memo did and didn’t violate policies, and who else is involved.
For Google, even if the eventual decision is glaringly obvious (i.e., we need to fire this guy), taking the time to weigh the pros and cons of every option—including suspension, departmental move, etc.—is critical.
And firing isn’t enough. In an instance like this, it’s important to look inward. While Google didn’t sanction this engineer’s words, it created the environment in which they were expressed. CEO Sundar Pichai’s response affirmed the company “strongly support[s] the right of Googlers to express themselves.” If an organization is going to place value on self-expression, it must seek to balance that openness with respect—and it’s the job of leadership to communicate what that balance is.
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Google should hold itself accountable by acknowledging its role, identifying the changes it must make, and having conversations so future dialogue is more constructive. The primary goal of any HR investigation should be to better understand the multiple views of a situation, unearth the root cause of why an incident happened and recommend changes to make for the future.
The hardest (but most important) HR task is to suspend personal judgment in favor of facts. HR acts as a liaison between employees and employers. We have to keep the well-being of the entire company in mind. Unfortunately, that puts us in a tricky position, especially when it’s something we don’t personally agree with. I abhor most of the remarks he made. But my feelings are beside the point.
So, what would I have done differently? Taken it slower. Defused the situation as much as possible. Tried to cool internal and external tensions at least slightly—before making such a finite decision. Suspension is a common tactic; remove the employee from the workplace at least temporarily. Instead of reacting to headlines and inflamed passions, spend as much time as needed conducting a thorough, objective investigation into why this happened and, more importantly, what you can learn.
Ironically, a good example of this is Travis Kalanick’s temporary “leave of absence” before his eventual resignation from Uber. When I saw that, I thought: likely a delay tactic to take the story out of the headlines, at least temporarily. That’s smart HR. It allowed for distance, control, and a slightly less dramatic exit.
The final takeaway: as black and white as some things seem, shades of gray always exist. The “gray” in this memo comes in the form of a freedom of speech debate. Portions of the memo raised fair points for further discussion about how to appropriately express different views in the workplace. However, many other points clearly crossed the boundaries of what’s acceptable. It’s in those shades of gray that you find learnings about ourselves, our values and better understanding of each other. By taking the extra time to deescalate the situation and tease out the gray areas, we can figure out how to work together and be better to each other.
Rachel Bitte is chief people officer at Jobvite. She has 20 years of HR leadership and process excellence experience—particularly in the tech industry—with a focus on change leadership and talent management.