Best Practices

Best Practices


I am sure you saw articles in the press recently about a Google employees memo, which laid out his personal beliefs about diversity within Google and the technology industry in general. The memo eventually went public, was widely critiqued and debated, and the employee was fired, which in itself provoked further controversy. This incident is instructive, in part because the petroleum and chemicals industries in which we operate suffer from similar shortfalls in the participation of women and minorities.

Google posts on its corporate website that of its tech employees, 20 percent are women and 1 percent are black, and within its leadership, 25 percent are women and 2 percent are black. As a consumer of Google products, and considering its long-term importance in the world as a leader in search engine technology and numerous other ventures, such as self-driving car technology, I believe that increasing diversity would serve them well.

I took the opportunity to read the memo online in its entirety. I will first summarize some of the key points in the document. The writer postulates (with little support) that the differences in distribution of traits between men and women may in part explain why we dont see 50 percent representation of women at Google in the technology and leadership populations. For instance, women have (according to the writer) stronger interest in people rather than things, higher agreeableness and more neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance). Men have higher interest in status and are more willing to make sacrifices in work/life balance to achieve it. These trait differences contribute to the reduced interest and competitiveness of women in the tech industry, according to the memo.

The writer goes on to point out some of the harms that ensue in the aim of correcting the underrepresentation of women in tech:

Programs, mentoring and classes only for people with certain gender or race;

high-priority queue and special treatment for diversity candidates;

hiring practices that effectively lower the bar for diversity candidates;

target-setting for increased representation, which can incentivize illegal discrimination.

At this point, some of my readers are likely agreeing with his points, and others are likely disgusted. However, the point of this article is not to polarize my audience but to learn from the debate. Here are some of the suggestions I have for management and for employees at all levels:

For management:

Ensure that your company values are clear, posted on your website and reinforced with employees. I searched for a clear statement of Google values on their website and could not find it. However, it was clear from their website that they value diversity, and there were numerous internal company groups dedicated to making employees of different races, ages, sexual orientations and genders feel comfortable within the Google organization.

Continue to do your part to state the business case for organizational diversity. It wasnt clear that Google had effectively done that. Arguing that it is the right thing to do is effective with some people, but not all. The business case is about recognizing that customers, suppliers, employees, stockholders and community members are becoming increasingly diverse, and organizational success and sustainability depends on improving diversity. The more you can bring statistics, customer anecdotes and surveys, and other compelling points to support your specific business case, the better you will be able to bring the entire organization with you.

Recognize that efforts to improve diversity can result in backlash. Consider broadening programs such as mentoring and personal improvement classes to include candidates other than diversity candidates.

Ensure that efforts to improve diversity are not seen to be lowering the bar. This perception, or this reality, will have a long-term negative impact on minorities and women in the company and is counterproductive. Instead, focus efforts on identifying and competing for top women and minority candidates that meet your high criteria. These efforts can include recruiting from new sources, offering internship opportunities to test skills, and ensuring the fairness of performance reviews as well as promotion and hiring processes.

For employees:

Do not venture into complex and emotionally charged areas unless specifically asked to do so. The Google employee in question basically ventured into a nature vs. nurture debate to which there is no real answer, and he should have known he was risking his job by doing so. Perhaps he could have made some progress on some of the so-called harm areas by toning down the rhetoric and focusing on the positives of expanding opportunities for everyone.

Take seriously company values, and recognize that if you cannot abide by the company values, in the long term you are not a fit.

If you want to challenge company values or the way in which the company enacts them, start by engaging your boss or peer group via company-endorsed processes. Public or companywide scrutiny is not likely to lead to the success of your efforts or your career.

Recognize that work is not a complete free speech zone. Keep full expression of your beliefs limited to your friends, family and free time. Recognize that at work, we need to form teams with all different types of people with the aim of advancing the company agenda and success.

The employee went on to discuss how Google was stifling diversity of thought within the organization. I, of course, cannot say if this is true or not. I do believe in the benefits of diversity of thought and the risks of groupthink within an organization. In todays politically polarized environment, it can be especially challenging to figure out how to encourage free expression of ideas and creative thinking while avoiding conflict within the workplace.

Management, legal and human resources departments should prepare in advance for thorny issues that may emerge, such as dealing with political tensions, social issues such as those related to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender colleagues, and other potential hot-button issues. Leadership must set an example of calm and sober thought, regardless of the environment. Of course, you cannot and should not avoid rational discussion of how politics may affect your company or the business environment in which you operate. We can and should learn from the Google example.

Sara Lefcourt of Lefcourt Consulting LLC specializes in helping companies to improve profits, reduce risk and step up their operations. Her experience includes many years in marketing, sales and procurement, first for Exxon and then at Infineum, where she was vice president, supply. Email her at or phone (908) 400-5210.

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