Employees Need to Learn When Not to Express Personal Beliefs and Why Character Still Matters
By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management at American Public University
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog article on my position about the recent situation at Google. Several weeks ago, Google engineer James Damore wrote a 10-page internal memo, later dubbed the “Google Manifesto” when it became public. Damore outlined how Google silenced conservative views and blocked debate on the need for workplace diversity.
Subsequently, Google CEO Sundar Pichai fired Damore. As a result, social media sites lit up with all manner of pros and cons about Damore’s memo and whether or not he should have been fired.
There are people who believe Damore should not have been fired for voicing his opinion, especially when Google promotes “free thought.” In justifying Damore’s firing, Pichai said, “Our words matter.” Pichai told employees that such views are not welcome at work.
So I looked into the company’s position in the Google employee handbook.
Did Google Have a Legal Right to Fire Damore?
I began to wonder about what is legal versus moral versus cultural? For example, is Google an “at-will” employer? Can the company terminate an employee without prior notification? Also, did the comments in Damore’s memo violate a code of behavior enforced at the company?
In his memo, Damore shared his views on why women were unable to advance to a leadership position. But could his arguments be validated and did his comments offend a segment of the population? At what point does freedom of speech cross the line, especially when a person’s opinions might not have any merit?
Employees Need to Know that Every Action Has a Reaction
People have choices. However, they need to be aware that every action has a reaction.
Damore had the right to voice his opinions (freedom of speech), but the organization could respond by terminating his employment based on policies outlined in the employee handbook. Pichai made that decision.
Karmeet Kaur Dhilton, an experienced business and labor lawyer, stresses that Damore’s manifesto cannot be classified as classic political speech. Instead, it was what she called “controversial speech that could anger workers.”
Can Employees Participate in Hate Groups on Their Own Time?
In a recent blog post, attorney Allen Smith asks, “When one of an employer’s workers participates in a hate group’s activities, such as the white nationalist rally that occurred in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, what are the employer’s rights under the law to terminate that employee?”
The focus of the blog was “Can or should employers fire employees who participate in hate groups?” One rally participant, Ryan Roy, was fired from his job at a pizza restaurant in Vermont after pictures of him marching with the white supremacists were posted on social media.
Let’s look at this from a legal versus moral versus cultural perspective:
- One camp argues that Roy’s First Amendment rights were violated. However, most people don’t realize that First Amendment protections apply only to the government, not to private employers. Private-sector employers are not required to allow employees to voice their beliefs over others, especially if those beliefs are offensive.
- In most at-will employment cases, employers can terminate a worker for any reason as long as the reason is not unlawful. Some states have laws and lifestyle discrimination statutes that prohibit employers from discriminating against employees’ behavior during off-duty activities. However, some employers, like the Vermont pizza restaurant, might take the risk and fire an employee if the activity is contrary to the organization’s policies and values.
There could also be “gray” areas when attempting to enforce employment policies regarding behavior outside the workplace. Some “what if” questions to consider:
- What if your employee has been identified as a participant in a behavior deemed deviant by mainstream society? That employee is still capable of performing his responsibilities, but the other team members are uncomfortable working with that employee and there is tension in the division.
- What if an employee files a discrimination suit against an organization and it is revealed that the supervisor is a high-ranking member of a hate group?
- What if customers come forth with evidence that a group of employees are members of a hate group? They could demand the termination of those employees or take their business elsewhere.
- What if you have a service-oriented company and some of your customers refuse to do business with your customer service employees who have been identified as being members of a hate group?
The Bottom Line: Character Counts
You are entitled to your beliefs. However, you have to weigh pros and cons, as well as decide where you are going to draw the line about expressing or acting on those beliefs.
Many of the attorneys interviewed for Allen Smith’s blog agree that there is no right answer from a legal perspective when no laws have been broken. Each situation must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Before you act or participate in an activity that others might find objectionable or discriminatory, you may want to ask yourself, “How important is it for me to keep this job?” and “Do my personal beliefs override my need for the job?”
The emotions and corporate culture of your organization might keep you from crossing that line.
About the Author
Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.
Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.