Mitchell’s Musings 8-14-2017: A Teachable Moment from Google

10 Aug 2017 8:58 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 8-14-2017: A Teachable Moment from Google


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


By now, anyone following the news is aware of the brouhaha that was stirred up at Google by a software engineer who circulated a memo that criticized Google’s diversity training program. The memo went on to assert that the lack of women in engineering and management was due to innate biological differences between males and females.[1] After a short delay, Google fired him. And – at this writing – the engineer, now identified as James Damore, is said to be looking at his legal options.


There are really three elements to this affair. First is the assertion of innate sex differences which are purported to explain the relative lack of females in certain fields. There have been other controversies about such assertions, notably remarks by then-President of Harvard Lawrence Summers over two decades ago.[2] Second, there is the issue of Google’s diversity policy and training against bias and how it’s conducted. Damore criticized the approach the company was taking. Third, there is the question of whether he should have been fired for his memo. It’s the last that I think is most important.


You can break down the third question into two parts. One is whether it was good personnel policy to fire him. A second is whether it was legal to fire him. Note that there is no law that declares in the abstract that companies must follow good personnel policy. But it’s hard to argue as a general proposition that good policy isn’t better to follow than bad policy. Presumably, firms adopt personnel policies with regard to discipline (including termination), and with regard to diversity, that company managers believe to be in the firm’s interest. But, of course, these policies are decisions by human beings and mistakes can be made.


In the Google case, there were pre-existing complaints about discrimination against women, some involving an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor. And there has been much public discussion of that issue with regard to Silicon Valley firms more generally. So apart from the specifics of the Damore’s memo, Google was already sensitive about such matters and, therefore, there was a PR element involved, apart from considerations of good personnel policy. In all these dimensions, there is much to be said – and undoubtedly much will be said.


But what about the legal issue? I think there is a teachable moment here that goes beyond Google’s immediate problems. One of the early reports on this matter by NPR made this assertion:


The law is a little unclear as to whether Google could fire the employee. Generally, political speech is protected under labor laws.[3]


You’ll note that the statement is vague. No particular “labor laws” are cited. And while there is always some room for ambiguity in legal matters, the statement is really wrong. Google is a private firm. It is not a government agency in which there are (some) protections for the political speech of employees. Of course, it is unclear that you can even characterize Damore’s memo as “political speech.” He wasn’t endorsing a candidate, proposing a change in public policy, etc. Nonetheless, the NPR reporter saw it that way. And that is the basis of a teachable moment.


If there were a union contract in place covering the engineer (which there certainly was not at Google), there would almost surely have been something in that contract requiring that discipline should occur only for “cause” or “just cause.” And there would have been a specified procedure for adjudicating such issues. We don’t know from the news reports whether the engineer had an explicit employment contract that might have guaranteed some similar protections against termination without cause. Most employees, however, don’t have such contracts.


California tends to be friendly to the idea that statements in company personnel manuals and the like have contract-like properties so that violations of rules laid out in such documents might be the basis of employee suits against wrongful termination. But most large employers are aware of such matters. They take care to word their manuals and other documents carefully to preserve the “at-will” status of their employees.


Some commentaries on this matter have pointed to the 1935 Wagner Act and its protections of employees who engage in “concerted activities.” The original intent of the Wagner Act was to protect private-sector workers seeking to unionize. But because courts had tended to be hostile to unions in that era, the Act was worded very broadly to protect any activity in which workers collaborated (such as getting together and organizing a union). As a result, any such collaboration is protected, even if there is no intent to form a union, so long as the collaboration has to do with wages and working conditions (broadly defined).


Arguably, Damore’s memo – to the extent that it criticized Google’s approach to diversity (such as the bias training program) – dealt with a working condition. But it’s a stretch to say that the complaints of a single individual – with no collaboration with anyone else – are protected. And, indeed, the fact that the only specific “labor law” that might provide some protection is the Wagner Act tells you that the case is pretty weak. Of course, anyone can file a complaint under the Wagner Act or sue under any other law. The question is the likelihood of succeeding.


So the teachable moment is that private sector employees in fact are generally at-will and constitutional protections of “free speech” and the like do not apply to them at the workplace. There are specific laws banning particular practices such as race, sex, age, etc., discrimination. And there are laws (often at the state level) dealing with things employers must do (such as the frequency of pay, payment of overtime, etc.). But most employees are otherwise “at-will” and absent a union contract or individual employment contract, there is little legal protection from termination. They can be fired for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason.


Although the Google case has little to do with protections for “political speech,” it does illuminate the current state of political affairs. The case of the fired engineer has become cause célèbre on the right, on the grounds that Google is too politically correct and is not open to conservative ideas.[4] It used to be that those on the right would celebrate successful private firms and argue that they should be free to pursue whatever personnel policies they see fit. By that logic, if Google sees its interest in following a particular diversity policy or bias training program, it should be free to do so. If Google fosters a culture that makes some employees uncomfortable (because they view it as too politically correct), in a free labor market those employees can always look for work elsewhere. Moreover, Google is certainly a highly successful firm – so apparently its policies are working to make it profitable. In short, those on the right should be pleased with Google and its capitalistic success, even if they might not want to work there. But they obviously aren’t. It’s another example of our changing times.

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Footnotes:

[1] http://www.therecorder.com/id=1202795118414/Google-Engineer-Firing-NoBrainer-or-More-Complicated

[2] http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2005/1/14/summers-comments-on-women-and-science/

[3] http://www.npr.org/2017/08/07/542087066/google-engineers-criticism-of-diversity-programs-sparks-controversy

[4] http://www.breitbart.com/tech/2017/08/07/google-fires-viewpoint-diversity-manifesto-author-james-damore/.  

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