3bl logo
Subscribe
logo

Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.

logo

Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Google's Most Famous Ex-Employee Derides Cult of Corporate Social Responsibility

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Leadership & Transparency
hero

When does corporate social responsibility cross the line from good business sense to cult-like social enforcement? That is the latest in a series of questions bubbling to the surface in the days since former Google software engineer James Damore posted an incendiary 10-page critique of the company's diversity policy on an internal message board.

In a fresh development, Damore defended his position in an op-ed published on August 11 by the Wall Street Journal -- and he's dug himself into an even deeper hole.

The James Damore memo and the Google Code of Conduct


To recap Damore's memo briefly, he argues that Google's diversity policy is misguided and needs to be revised. As evidence, he makes a detailed case that women are biologically unsuited to compete with men as software engineers and in leadership positions in general.

Damore posted his memo internally in July and it found its way to the public earlier this month. By August 7th he was fired.

As a matter of form, the Damore memo shares a key element with some of the more sophisticated critiques of climate science. That is, he lays out a fairly well organized argument, complete with charts and references, in support of a position that contradicts a considerable history of peer-reviewed research.

As with climate change deniers, the problem is that Damore does not assemble a body of reliable evidence that holds up under review. Aside from that, he lacks any research credentials that might provide his argument with the weight of professional insight.

When the veneer of supposed academic research is removed, the memo amounts to a series of truisms without basis in fact.

Numerous critics have observed that the memo is simply a "sexist manifesto" -- a misogynistic screed aimed at women who currently are or aspire to be software engineers worthy of employment in the uppermost reaches of their profession.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai cited violations of the company's Code of Conduct in a note to employees explaining the Damore case, and it's not hard to see where the trouble lies. Paragraph 1 of the Preface reads (emphasis added):

“Don’t be evil.” Googlers generally apply those words to how we serve our users. But “Don’t be evil” is much more than that. Yes, it’s about providing our users unbiased access to information, focusing on their needs and giving them the best products and services that we can. But it’s also about doing the right thing more generally – following the law, acting honorably, and treating co-workers with courtesy and respect.

Damore responds...with science!

The Wall Street Journal op-ed appears under the title, "Why I was Fired From Google." The opening paragraph provides a glimpse into Damore's thinking:
I was fired by Google this past Monday for a document that I wrote and circulated internally raising questions about cultural taboos and how they cloud our thinking about gender diversity at the company and in the wider tech sector. I suggested that at least some of the male-female disparity in tech could be attributed to biological differences (and, yes, I said that bias against women was a factor too)...

This statement makes it appear that Damore's memo was a thought piece revolving around his personal opinion on a topic. That is misleading. In the memo it is clear that Damore means his points to be taken as facts, not mere conjecture.

In the op-ed, Damore himself underscores the evidence-based intention of his memo. He goes on to describe the memo as a "10-page document [that] set out what I considered a reasoned, well-researched, good-faith argument."

He further elaborates:

How did Google, the company that hires the smartest people in the world, become so ideologically driven and intolerant of scientific debate and reasoned argument?

Damore is mixing apples and oranges. Regardless of his judgement on the merits of his own research, his memo is not a science-based document. There is no "scientific debate" to be intolerant of, at least not in the context of Damore's memo.

If Damore only intended to express his personal opinion, then of course he is free to do that -- and people who disagree with him are free to do that, too.

The cult of corporate social responsibility


Rather than defending his argument on the merits, Damore spends much of the op-ed complaining that Google has publicly shamed him (despite repeatedly neglecting to publish his name). Damore positions himself as the victim of an intellectual witch hunt. That kind of response also reflects parallels with climate change denial.

Like climate change deniers, Damore has established his own standard of reasonableness, to the extent that anyone who holds an opposing position is brainwashed:

...For many, including myself, working at Google is a major part of their identity, almost like a cult with its own leaders and saints, all believed to righteously uphold the sacred motto of “Don’t be evil.”

Damore's antipathy to a cult-like atmosphere is odd considering that charismatic leadership and "sacred" mottos are threaded through the history of American entrepreneurship from Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford to Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. Google is certainly not unique in that respect.

If anything, the Damore episode underscores the importance of establishing a forceful CSR profile as a matter of corporate identity. Absent a strong reputation for "doing the right thing," a case like Damore's could burn a company.

Though Google apparently has a long way to go in terms of leveling the playing field for female engineers, its diversity policy provides it with an essential tool for identifying obstacles to progress.

In general, those obstacles are thought to occur outside of the company doors, but as the Damore episode reveals, companies also need to pay attention to internal challenges.

More to be heard from James Damore


In another interesting twist, Damore has taken his case to Twitter. On August 11, The New York Times confirmed that Damore is behind a new Twitter account with the handle @Fired4Truth. Though relatively thin on tweets the account already had more than 61,000 followers as of August 12th.

The account features Damore's profile picture and a biography that identifies him as a “Former Google Senior Software Engineer and Harvard PhD student, fired for telling the truth.”

The Ph.D. reference is somewhat misleading. Damore received a master's degree in biology from Harvard but left the program before achieving a doctoral degree. Last week Business Insider reported that Damore removed the Ph.D. reference from his LinkedIn profile, but as of August 12th it still had a place in his Twitter bio.

In another interesting twist, Damore's tweets indicate that he is hitching his star to Silicon Valley billionaire and Facebook board member Peter Thiel, whose public support for President Trump has been amply documented. On August 12th Damore retweeted a link to an August 8th New York Times article that places his Google memo in the context of broader Silicon Valley culture wars. The article is illustrated with side-by-side photos of Thiel and one of his critics, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.

Damore's Twitter account also demonstrates an impressive level of media savvy. It is peppered with retweets that cast him as a new hero in the fight against the "diversity industrial complex."

With that in mind, it's no surprise that Damore has been embraced by conservative thought influencers, including the "alt-right" YouTube stars Stefan Molyneux and Jordan B. Peterson. Even before Google made its decision, Breitbart began floating word that the "free speech" social media site Gab.ai had offered a job to him. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has also reportedly offered him a job.

Damore appears to be on his way to new career as a conservative pundit, where he will be free to speak on any topic he desires, no matter who he offends.

Image (screenshot): via Twitter.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

Read more stories by Tina Casey

More stories from Leadership & Transparency