Free speech is a right. So is a non-hostile work environment.
Google GOOG scientist James Damore unleashed a media firestorm when he published an internal memo that offered his personal meditations on addressing diversity at Google. He suggested that achieving gender parity in the tech industry was very unlikely, given “population level differences in distributions” between men and women. He attributed many of these gender differences to biological differences, using arguments from evolutionary psychology.
The publication of this internal memo was a crisis. As I teach my students, a crisis requires a rapid response and is best solved with both decisive action and thoughtfully articulated explanations for that action, both to internal and external stakeholders. Google had two options. Option 1 was to retain Damore and express support for free speech in an unfettered form. Option 2 was to fire him and express support for creating a non-hostile work environment. Whatever action Google took needed to be fast, clear, and thoughtfully articulated.
The CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai, made the right decision to cut his family vacation short so he could respond rapidly. He made the right decision in choosing option 2: firing Damore. And his internal memo explaining his decision offered a thoughtful consideration of the key issues.
This crisis, like many crises, was punctuated by right vs. right dilemma, a concept created by Rushworth Kidder, founder of the Institute for Global Ethics. A right vs. right dilemma represents two valid values, each with their own merit and support. Free speech is a foundational value of the United States articulated in the Bill of Rights. Being free to work in a non-hostile work environment is also a key right, one connected to the idea of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” embedded in the Declaration of Independence. It is right to defend free speech and it is right to protect people from speech that creates a hostile work environment.
The situation is further complicated by the distinction between the diversity of ideas and the diversity of people. These two forms of diversity are often causally connected, as diversity of people leads to a diversity of ideas. People from different backgrounds and experiences often have access to different ideas and perspectives. But these two forms of diversity can be inconsistent. What do you do when support for the diversity of ideas actually limits the diversity of people?
In solving any dilemma, it is instructive to look at past precedence and useful analogies. In the case of speech, the Supreme Court has declared that protections of free speech are not absolute. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has noted in Schenck v. United States that falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater is not protected speech because the damage of those words outweighs the protection for those words. Indeed, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote in his opinion that unprotected words “create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” Later, in 1969, the Supreme Court revised its phrasing, stating that free speech couldn’t be punished by the government unless it led to “imminent lawless action.”
In his memo to Google employees, Pichai claimed that Google supports free speech but that Damore’s words were themselves not protected because of their clear and present danger. He wrote that Damore’s biological arguments were “contrary to our basic values and our Code of Conduct, which expects ‘each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination.’” Pichai is right: A biological explanation for sex differences implicitly endorses separation and offers justifications for discrimination. Biological explanations for sex differences create a clear and present danger to inclusion. Thus, Damore’s diversity of ideas was so problematic because it had the potential to limit the diversity of people.
Google faced a crisis with the Damore memo. By responding rapidly, with clear decisiveness, and with thoughtful explanation, Google handled this crisis effectively. Of course, this crisis doesn’t solve the larger looming one over the under-representation of women in the tech industry. But hopefully the successful handling of this crisis will lead to more frank conversations that produce more innovative solutions in the near future.
Adam Galinsky is a professor at Columbia Business School.
This piece has been updated to reflect the Supreme Court’s new phrasing around free speech.