Google Fired and Disciplined Employees for Speaking Out About Diversity

By Kate Conger on at

Last August, James Damore circulated a memo internally at Google in which he argued women were biologically less inclined to succeed in engineering roles at the company and that Google’s diversity efforts were misguided. In doing so, he set off heated debate among his co-workers—debate that, according to current and former employees who spoke to Gizmodo, led Google to ramp up its moderation of internal conversations and crack down on employees who speak up about diversity.

Google’s practice of formally reprimanding—and in at least one case, firing—employees for comments the company deemed discriminatory toward white men suggests that Google made an effort to moderate speech by its liberal employees as well as its conservative ones. These efforts have left some Google employees concerned that they will face professional consequences if they voice support for Google’s diversity and inclusion efforts and wondering if the company’s HR system is being gamed by employees who want to stamp out diversity initiatives.

Tim Chevalier, who was fired in November 2017 from his role as a site reliability engineer at Google after he made several internal posts calling out racism and sexism at the company, sued Google today for discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and wrongful termination. Chevalier, who is transgender, queer, and disabled, alleges that Google failed to protect its female, minority, and LGBTQ employees from harassment on internal forums—but was quick to crack down on those employees when they spoke out about their experiences with racism, sexism, and homophobia at work.

Chevalier is one of four current and former Google employees who said they were disciplined for speaking out internally against racism and sexism—speech that Google allegedly deemed discriminatory toward white men. One of them requested anonymity because they are not authorised to speak publicly about their experiences at Google. The earliest examples documented by Gizmodo occurred in 2016, before Damore began working on his memo, but Google’s efforts appear to have escalated after the memo was published.

Google did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails from Gizmodo requesting comment prior to the publication of this story. In a statement provided after publication, Google spokesperson Gina Scigliano said, “An important part of our culture is lively debate. But like any workplace, that doesn’t mean anything goes. All employees acknowledge our code of conduct and other workplace policies, under which promoting harmful stereotypes based on race or gender is prohibited. This is a very standard expectation that most employers have of their employees. The overwhelming majority of our employees communicate in a way that is consistent with our policies. But when an employee does not, it is something we must take seriously. We always make our decision without any regard to the employee’s political views.”

Colin McMillen, a staff software engineer at Google who has worked at the company for eight years, said he was reprimanded by human resources for an internal post in which he stated he did not want to work with individuals who shared Damore’s beliefs. Bridget Spitznagel, an engineer who left Google last spring, said human resources demanded that she remove an internal post that linked to information about an upcoming racial justice workshop. Another former employee described being disciplined for a comment defending one of Google’s recruitment programmes.

“They asked questions like, ‘Are you saying you won’t work with white people?’ and ‘Are you saying you won’t work with men?’”

Former Google security engineer Cory Altheide told Gizmodo in January that a senior vice president and the company’s human resources department discouraged him from discussing diversity and inclusion initiatives, conversations that motivated his departure from the company in 2016.

Damore and fellow former Googler David Gudeman filed a class action lawsuit against Google in early January. Damore and Gudeman were both fired for comments the company deemed discriminatory, according to their lawsuit—Damore for his suggestions that women were inherently less suited for engineering work than men, and Gudeman for internal posts that suggested one of his Muslim co-workers was a terrorist. Damore and Gudeman included screenshots of internal posts by McMillen, Chevalier, Spitznagel, and Altheide in their lawsuit in an attempt to prove the company routinely discriminated against white, conservative, male employees.

“We look forward to defending against Mr Damore’s lawsuit in court,” a Google spokesperson said after the suit was filed. Last week, the US National Labor Relations Board released a guidance memo recommending Damore’s complaint to the agency, which is separate from his class action suit, be dismissed. The NLRB found that Damore’s memo constituted sexual harassment and that Google was within its rights to fire him.

Chevalier’s lawsuit and the fresh claims of his former colleagues, however, mean Google’s practice of disciplining employees for internal discussions around diversity—from both conservatives and liberals— will remain an unresolved issue for the foreseeable future, thanks in large part to an all-consuming company culture Google itself created.

“Company social networking forums can be incredibly useful, but employers have an obligation to prevent them from becoming a cesspool of bullying and harassment,” David Lowe, one of Chevalier’s attorneys, said in a statement. “Firing the employee who pushed back against the bullies was exactly the wrong step to take.”

Bruising Internal Politics

In August 2017, shortly after Damore’s memo was published by Gizmodo, Chevalier penned a blog post comparing the logic of James Damore’s memo to that used by domestic abusers to justify and perpetuate their abuse. The post, which Chevalier linked to on internal Google Plus, compared Damore’s memo to the manifestos written by mass shooters Eliot Rodger and Marc Lépine. Damore’s writing reflected similar feelings of entitlement and gender superiority to those on display in Rodger’s and Lépine’s manifestos and in the behaviour of domestic abusers, Chevalier argued.

“What the manifesto-writer and domestic abusers have in common is feelings of entitlement,” Chevalier wrote of Damore’s memo. “Of course, the way they act on those feelings is different. But the effect is the same: to intimidate and control women, whether an individual wife or girlfriend or all of this person’s female coworkers. In both cases, making excuses for the abuser fails to identify and dispute the abuser’s sense of entitlement.”

Chevalier’s post heavily cited Why Does He Do That?, a book by the domestic violence researcher Lundy Bancroft that analyses abusive behaviour. Bancroft writes that young boys are often raised to believe that, when they enter romantic relationships, their partners will be solely dedicated to meeting their needs. When they discover in adulthood that their partners have fully formed lives of their own, they can feel cheated, Bancroft explains. Chevalier referenced this particular passage of Bancroft’s book in his blog post, and that was the section that Google’s human resources team said violated company policy, Chevalier said.

“White boys (not only white boys, but especially) are taught not just that they’re entitled to a perfect female partner/servant in the way Bancroft describes, but also that they’re entitled to high status because of their maleness and whiteness; that being white and male are precious gifts that no one can ever take away from them,” Chevalier wrote in the post. This line, he was told, violated Google’s harassment and discrimination policy.

Two posts Chevalier created on Google’s internal meme generator, Memegen, were also cited as reasons for his dismissal, according to his lawsuit.

In one instance, a black Googler wrote in an internal Google Plus post that she noticed she was being asked to present her identification badge more frequently than her white coworkers. When someone responded that her coworkers were just doing their jobs by asking her to prove she worked for Google, Chevalier made a meme using the privilege-denying dude format with the caption, “I have opinions about forms of oppressions that don’t affect me.”

The other meme cited by Google’s HR was posted shortly after the 2016 election. Chevalier’s caption was, “White men felt disenfranchised because their needs are no longer centred and people of colour and women are getting a fair share.” He was fired in November 2017.

In his lawsuit, Chevalier says that his supervisor at Google criticised him for his political activism several times prior to his firing. He also alleges that Google’s HR department did not take action when he raised complaints about discriminatory comments from his coworkers.

“I don’t advocate for diversity and inclusion because it’s fun or because I would rather do that than think about distributed systems,” Chevalier wrote in an internal Google Plus post cited in the lawsuit. “100% of the time I spend on defending my right to be here and the rights of women, people in gender and sexual minorities, people of colour, and disabled people to be here is time I would rather spend thinking about hard intellectual problems in engineering or science.”

In the aftermath of Damore’s memo, McMillen wrote on internal Google Plus that he would refuse to work with other employees who supported Damore’s views. In mid-September, McMillen was called into a meeting with HR and told that a complaint had been made about his post.

“They asked questions like, ‘Are you saying you won’t work with white people?’ and ‘Are you saying you won’t work with men?’” McMillen recalled. “I was saying, ‘If you believe women are inherently worse at engineering, I’m going to have a hard time working with you.’”

The HR investigation into his comment lasted about two weeks, he said. During that time, McMillen said his HR representative told him that the department was processing a number of similar complaints and would endeavour to handle them all similarly. At the end of the investigation, McMillen was told that he should excuse himself from all hiring and promotion decisions. “The stated reason was there were concerns about my ability to be impartial in evaluating other people,” he explained.

After his manager pushed back on the decision, McMillen said, he was told that he didn’t have to remove himself from hiring and promotion roles—it was merely a suggestion—and he would be welcome to resume those roles after one year.

“There were missed opportunities for stuff that I enjoy doing,” he said. “There’s also a social impact of knowing that myself and a bunch of other people who spoke up against the Damore memo got some sort of negative HR interaction for having done so.”

Another employee, who requested anonymity because Google typically requires its employees to adhere to non-disclosure agreements, told Gizmodo they faced a run-in with human resources after an internal conversation about Google’s initiatives to improve diversity in its hiring pipeline.

Google stepped up its recruiting efforts at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in recent years—an effort that was the subject of intense internal debate. The conversation heated up as several media outlets reported on Google’s recruitment from HBCUs, with some employees questioning why Google had selected these particular schools rather than other universities that had not historically served black students.

The former Google employee responded, calling those questions unequivocally racist. The employee received a formal reprimand from Google HR in 2016 for the comment—a copy of which was reviewed by Gizmodo—which called the statement “disrespectful and divisive.”

In a 2016 post on internal Google Plus, Spitznagel highlighted a racial justice workshop and noted it might be useful to white co-workers who were interested in becoming more involved in the cause. The title of the workshop, which Spitznagel herself didn’t reference in her post, was “Healing from Toxic Whiteness to Better Fight for Racial Justice.”

The phrase “toxic whiteness” triggered the HR complaint, and Spitznagel said she took her post down when instructed to do so.

Googlers that spoke with Gizmodo believe that the HR complaints against them aren’t isolated incidents, but part of a larger effort among some of their coworkers to shut down discussions about diversity. In addition to the seemingly spurious HR complaints, Google employees have had their internal conversations leaked to alt-right sites that then targeted them for online harassment, Wired reported.

The diversity debate inside Google might seem strange to outsiders who don’t have similar conversations at work. But Google has encouraged employees to engage in open discussion since its early days, and provided the forums for employees to do so.

Google’s Many Mailing Lists

Damore’s memo and the intense debate it incited weren’t born in a vacuum—vigorous internal discussion of professional and personal topics are a well-established part of Google’s culture.

Google maintains a vast array of internal mailing lists that cover broad topics like politics and sexuality as well as niche interests like experimental aircraft and specific team vacations. Any employee can create a new mailing list, and the lists are largely unmoderated by the company—although conversations on them are occasionally escalated to human resources if they become particularly heated or moderated by the employees who run the lists. At present, Google has more internal mailing lists than it has employees, although only some are active while many others are abandoned. Damore shared his memo on several mailing lists over the course of last summer and also created his own mailing list to solicit feedback. He called the list “pc-harmful-discuss.” Despite his firing last year, the list remains active.

“These lists were in large part free-for-all,” the former Google employee said. “Mailing lists like eng-misc were just kind of our playgrounds.”

Eng-misc, a list dedicated to wide-ranging engineering conversations, IndustryInfo, Politics, and other mailing lists became central parts of Google’s internal culture, and discussions on them had the potential to rattle large swaths of the company. One mailing-list debate that’s become something of an internal legend for racking up thousands of responses pitted supporters of the Tibetan independence movement against employees from China. The impetus? A dessert in a campus cafe that featured “Free Tibet goji berries,” according to a sign displayed next to the snack.

Forums like Google Plus and Memegen are also hubs for internal discussion at Google. When the company announced in 2015 that it would ban adult content on Blogger, Memegen went dark in a protest against the decision. In 2016, Googlers participated in an initiative nicknamed “Memegender” to increase the representation of women in the meme templates on Memegen.

These forums developed into integral parts of Google’s culture in part because of the company’s expectations of secrecy—employees aren’t supposed to discuss their work outside the office, and an abundance of caution led to mailing lists geared towards social topics as well as professional ones. Some employees felt the quality of discussion among their coworkers was higher than other, public forums like Reddit or HackerNews, and preferred to keep their discussions of the industry and their personal lives sequestered on internal forums. Google also promoted openness internally, encouraging its employees to debate decisions even if that meant challenging the CEO.

“Things are open to debate internally at Google, including decisions of the CEO, and people don’t get in trouble for that. That’s generally a good thing for the culture,” McMillen said. “HR and leadership don’t police these sort of discussions, and generally that’s a good thing. But they also have a blind spot that means they don’t know the person posting this comment has posted it 100 times.”

“The fact that we are able to openly criticise our product or leaders’ decisions makes our product better,” Liz Fong-Jones, a site reliability engineer who has worked at Google for ten years and is outspoken about diversity and inclusion at the company, explained. “The place where this runs off the rails is when people aren’t behaving in good faith.” Fong-Jones said she had not been reprimanded by HR for speaking in support of diversity and inclusion initiatives, but had received harassment after her posts were leaked online.

Over the last several years, conversations seem to run off the rails more and more frequently, Googlers who spoke to Gizmodo explained. That’s partially due to Google’s growth—mailing list discussions that once included a handful of people have ballooned to thousands—but the employees also noted that some of their coworkers dedicated significant time and effort to pushing back against diversity and inclusion efforts.

During the year leading up to the 2016 election and in its aftermath, internal conversations about Google’s diversity and inclusion initiatives had become consistently heated and confrontational.

‘I’m Just Asking’

If an employee posted on Google Plus or a mailing list about diversity, he or she would often be met with responses that seemed designed to draw them into an argument, according to the current and former employees. If the employee took the bait and responded angrily to the provocation, their response would be screen-capped and sent to HR or to an alt-right site. The interactions seemed tailor-made to get Googlers who spoke up in favour of diversity in trouble so they would speak up less frequently, employees who experienced it said.

“There was this small group of malcontents who like to play the ‘I’m just asking’ game and deliberately try to make issues, and then immediately claim to be the victims,” the former employee explained.

Altheide described this behaviour in a 2015 internal Google Plus post, saying that the questions were “not coming from a position of good faith.” He published the post earlier this month in a longer document that described his reasons for leaving Google.

Chevalier’s lawsuit cites a May 2016 internal comment as emblematic of the problem: “If we have fewer Black and Latin@ people here, doesn’t that mean they’re not as good?” one Googler wrote.

“There are some people that object to [Google’s parent company] Alphabet and Google’s diversity and inclusion initiative and object to people who are trying to fulfil those objectives,” Fong-Jones added. “They ask questions all the time. ‘Can you describe for me why there aren’t just two genders?’ Or, ‘I don’t see why women have a problem working in tech; tech is a meritocracy.’ That started a couple years ago and it’s escalated since then.”

“It’s people provoking you, trying to get a reaction out of you. As soon as they get reaction, they can leak it to an extremist site that will get you harassed outside of work, or they will report you to HR.”

Some employees tried to answer the questions rationally, but doing so would quickly become overwhelming, they said. “One of these people will come into a thread and ask 20 questions, some of which are related and some of which are not. The amount of time investment to respond is ridiculous,” McMillen said.

It was in this environment—in which the concept that Google should diversify its workforce was regularly up for debate—that Damore wrote and shared his memo. Since he created his own mailing list for discussion of the document, he was the person most empowered to moderate that discussion. He apparently chose not to, and the conversations on the list quickly became heated. After Damore was fired, the flame wars continued without anyone to moderate them.

Responding to provocations about diversity sometimes led to more frightening situations than a lecture from an HR representative. Internal posts that Googlers made about Damore’s memo were leaked to alt-right websites, which in turn drove online harassment towards employees. Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai canceled an August all-hands meeting about the memo after employees received violent threats.

“It’s people provoking you, trying to get a reaction out of you. As soon as they get reaction, they can leak it to an extremist site that will get you harassed outside of work, or they will report you to HR,” Fong-Jones said.

The escalation of debates over diversity, Google’s apparent willingness to crack down on employees who support corporate diversity goals, and the external harassment have all contributed to some Google employees worrying about their safety and wondering if sticking up for their principles is worth the backlash.

Google needs to do more to protect its employees and investigate misleading HR complaints, Fong-Jones said.

“The first and primary thing that the company should be doing is addressing this false report to HR, or the provocation-and-report-to-HR pattern,” she said. “I think HR thinks it’s just people saying mean words on a mailing list. It’s a lack of sophistication.”

Google’s response also led some employees to believe that the company was undermining its own diversity initiatives. Google has reportedly spent at least $265 million on its diversity and inclusion efforts. That funding goes to education programs, scholarships, grants for research, improving internet access in emerging markets, and policy advocacy. Google offers employee resource groups organised around race, gender, sexuality, age, disability, and other affiliations, and has published an annual diversity report since 2014. Despite its commitments to diversity, Google’s hasn’t significantly increased the number of women and people of colour it employees since its first diversity report.

“It is a cruel irony that Google attempted to justify firing me by claiming that my social networking posts showed bias against my harassers. The anti-discrimination laws are meant to protect marginalised and underrepresented groups—not those who attack them,” Chevalier said.