Lessons learned from the Google anti-diversity memo

Jennifer Janson, author of The Reputation Playbook and chairman of Six Degrees, explores what can we learn in the aftermath of Google's anti-diversity scandal.

In this Small Business monthly series of ‘Lessons Learned’, Jennifer Janson, author of The Reputation Playbook and chairman of Six Degrees, will assess how a company that was recently in the news has handled a crisis, and provide top tips for small businesses to handle crises in the best way possible.

As issues surrounding freedom of speech unfolded dramatically in the US recently, highlighted by the harrowing events in Charlottesville, a leaked internal anti-diversity memo coming out of Google has rocked the Silicon Valley giant leaving questions bare.

When senior software engineer, James Damore, circulated a ten-page anti-diversity manifesto it quickly caused ripples at the tech giant.

The manifesto in question entitled ‘Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber’, initially criticises a perceived left wing culture at the company in addition to a number of contentious points of discussion. One of which being his extreme judgment around gender differences in the workplace, and asserting that gender representation discrepancies in the tech industry may be down to biological differences between men and women – dismissing the idea that women are discriminated against.

Unsurprisingly, the leaked manifesto was picked up by media outlets across the globe, including the New York Times and sparked widespread discussion on social media. Google now faces potential repercussions as the question of sexism looms over Silicon Valley with a possible gender discrimination lawsuit on the horizon.

What initially started with a controversial internal manifesto, has now spread and reached a global audience, reinforcing the notion that internal communications rarely stay internal.

So, what can we learn from the aftermath of Google anti-diversity scandal?

Prioritise who is the most important audience

Although much of the coverage surrounding the situation has been around Google’s swift response to fire James Damore, ultimately the media will always look to make negative headlines – bad press sells. Whatever actions Google now takes, chances are the press will find a way to make it suit their narrative.

The most important thing Google can do now is focus on the real victims – in this case its female employees. All its focus should be on what it can do to address the issue in a meaningful and sustainable way.

Keep media relations in perspective

In any crisis, the media will typically find a villain, victim and a hero. In this case, Google is most certainly being pegged as the villain. There is a fine line between being transparent, and using the media as the main platform for communications in relation to your crisis. As a company, it is important to acknowledge the needs of journalists and keep them updated on relevant information as the issue unfolds. But the priority when it comes to communicating must be with the people most affected by the issue (in this case employees).

Attempting to control the media is futile, but equally, any company in this situation should be wary of letting journalists dictate how, when and what gets communicated.

What matters is how you behave when no one is looking…

Internal communications between employees are a vital part of the day to day running of any size of business. What this Google issue has taught us is that it’s naïve to think that any internal communications will stay internal, and ‘freedom of speech’ does not mean freedom from consequence.

Usually our starting point is to advise companies to ensure employee behaviour is in line with its core values. But with Google having freedom and openness listed as two of its values, Damore could arguably suggest what he did was aligned with the company’s ethos. Although I am certain that’s not what Google had in mind when it also talks about corporate citizenship and general ethics.

This particular example might seem as an exception as Google is a tech giant in Silicon Valley with thousands of employees, but in the era of social media, it could happen to anyone. As a business leader, the single most important thing you can do is to focus on communicating your values to employees and stressing the importance of behaviour in line with those values.

Jennifer Janson is author of The Reputation Playbook and chairman of Six Degrees. 

 Further reading on reputation issues

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of SmallBusiness.co.uk from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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