By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management, at American Public University
Google is considered one of the best companies for employees. So I was surprised by the number of recent news articles probing into Google’s cultural and employee issues.
After all, according to the Great Places to Work website, 97% of employees say Google is a great place to work. In addition, in the recent annual Fortune magazine rankings of the best companies to work for, Google retained its top ranking for the sixth year in a row.
How Has Google Held the Top Spot for So Long?
The company recently hired a number of social scientists to study the organization and find out what made the employees tick, according to an article in Slate magazine. This group, known as PiLab (for People and Innovation Lab), was charged with determining what combination of benefits and incentives made Google employees happy? Some of the questions they asked were:
- What would you prefer: $1,000 more in salary or a $2,000 bonus?
- How often should you remind people to contribute to their 401(k)s, and what tone should you use in reminding them?
- Do successful middle managers have certain skills in common — and can you teach those skills to unsuccessful managers?
- Or, for that matter, do managers even matter — can you organize a company without them?
- If you want to give someone a raise, how should you do it in a way that maximizes his or her happiness?
Earlier this year, California blogger Syed Aashir Hussain posted an article, “Why Google Is a Great Place To Work – Top 14 Reasons.”
What’s interesting is that some of Hussain’s highlights encourage employees to be innovative and creative in their thought processes. He writes: “Google gives some of the best employee perks or perquisites, activities for profession[al] development, work that really affects the humanity in addition to innovative concepts.”
Many of Google’s activities are designed to challenge employees’ minds and open channels for the most original ideas. Some of Google’s “perks” included:
- Helping hands for advanced education – employees are encouraged to take a leave of absence to pursue educational opportunities.
- Sharing of ideas with management – regular town hall meetings are scheduled to allow employees to share their opinions and ideas.
- Time-to-time medical guarantee – medical staff is on-site to ensure employees are in good physical health.
- Post-death support – if an employee dies, the surviving spouse can receive 50% of the worker’s [stock] profits during each 12-month period for 10 years.
There are very few companies with benefits of this caliber. That might be a reason why so many employees are contented as Google employees.
What Has Gone Wrong at Google?
Over the past week, there has been a public outcry over a 10-page internal memo written by Google software engineer James Damore. In what became known as the Google Manifesto, Damore outlined how Google (1) silenced conservative viewpoints and (2) blocked debate on the necessity of diversity. “When it comes to diversity and inclusion, Google’s left bias has created a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence,” CNN Tech quoted from Damore’s memo.
Damore also argued that women are not biologically fit for technology work. He said they are less assertive and more neurotic than men, making women less likely to reach leadership positions and high-stress jobs.
When the manifesto became public, Damore was fired. Social media sites flooded the Internet with pro and con comments.
When Does Free Speech Become Offensive Speech?
Some people believe Damore should not have been fired for voicing his opinions (he has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board), especially since Google promotes free expression. So I looked at Google’s employee handbook.
For example, is Google an “at will” employer? Can Google terminate an employee without notification?
Also, did Damore’s comments in the memo violate a code of behavior enforced by the company? For example, he shared his views on why women could not advance to leadership positions.
But (1) could his argument be valid and (2) did the comments offend a segment of the population? At what point does freedom of speech cross the line from opinion to discrimination, especially if someone’s opinions have no merit?
People have a choice. However, they need to be aware that every action has a reaction. Damore had the right to voice his opinion (freedom of speech), but Google had the right to terminate his employment based on the policies in the employee handbook.
Karmeet Kaur Dhilton, an experienced business and labor lawyer in California, says Damore’s manifesto cannot be classified as classical political speech. Rather, it was what she called “controversial speech that could anger workers.”
Google Management Also Reported to Blacklist Problem Employees
Since this situation surfaced, other discriminatory actions within Google have come to light. Bloggers and others have written about Google management’s practice of compiling lists of blackballed employees for being problem workers.
A Google spokesman confirmed that senior management does not condone the practice. But there has not been any statement regarding whether or not disciplinary actions were taken against mid-level managers who practiced this unethical, unjust act.
Google’s ‘Best Place to Work’ Ranking Is Now at Risk
Activities like Damore’s memo and middle management’s blackballing of employees are common practice in some organizations. But those businesses haven’t received “best place to work” awards.
Google’s culture of fostering high employee job satisfaction may still be true. However, there are some issues that must be addressed if Google wants to continue holding its “best place to work” title.
It’s possible that a cultural shift was occurring at Google, but was not addressed. For example, the PiLab social scientists may not have examined:
- Political correctness versus appropriate behavior. Social media sites have given rise to individuals expressing their opinions without sensitizing the content or thinking about the consequences of sharing those thoughts. We have evolved into a society where one segment believes its views are right and anyone with different beliefs or values is the enemy.
- The results of the 2016 election. The United States has become a divided nation, as citizens have drawn a line as to whether you are a friend or a foe based on your political views. These individuals identify themselves with their political ideology and loathe anyone who thinks differently.
- The behavior of middle management. There is a need for more senior executive town hall meetings because the message from the top does not always trickle down to the trenches as intended. Although middle management is charged with leading the daily operations of an organization, these individuals could have hidden agendas for some reasons.
Author and leadership expert Christopher Kolenda has outlined six causes of toxic leadership. One of those causes applies to the Google situation: There are times when an organization places the wrong person in a position of authority. Those individuals have perfected what Kolenda calls the “kiss up and abuse down” technique, which keeps the senior level out of the loop with what is going on in the organization.
I’m cheering for the PiLab folks to get up, dust themselves off and place Google back on its throne. Every organization has problems; it’s how you handle them that counts.
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.