Google Memo Writer Would Likely Lose Lawsuit Against Google
Former Google software engineer James Damore was fired by Google for writing a memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” that critics have labeled as “anti-diversity.” Damore’s memo was originally on a private internal company discussion board, but was quickly shared outside Google.
Google, currently under investigation by the Department of Labor for paying women less than men, has distanced itself from Damore’s memo, which claims that numerous differences between women and men are biological. Google’s new Vice President of Diversity, Integrity and Governance, Danielle Brown, has released a statement that the memo is “not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes or encourages.”
Damore says he is considering bringing a suit against Google for his recent dismissal, though exactly what claims he thinks will be successful in court is unclear.
What about Free Speech?
It’s a common misconception that free speech protects everyone against termination or discrimination. The First Amendment, and the ban against restricting free speech, is constitutional law. The Constitution only applies to governments: the federal government, the states, and local counties. The Constitution does NOT apply to private corporations. If Mr. Damore was terminated for writing his memo while working for California’s Department of Motorized Vehicles, he would have a strong free speech case against California. However, since Damore’s employer, Google, was a private employer, the First Amendment does not apply to this case.
However, while Google may prevail legally, this is a political, employment, and public relations nightmare that most major corporations don’t want to deal with. Google has built a reputation and social philosophy on diversity. Most conservative platforms and publications this week have already pointed out the hypocrisy: what’s the point in having diversity in race or gender if your team’s thoughts and viewpoints aren’t diverse? Diversity as a value is superficial if the only diversity celebrated is the person’s skin or appearance.
Still, this is a political question that will only affect law if public opinion changes enough.
Is There a Discrimination Suit Here?
Employment law is premised on two ideas: 1. that employers (and employees) may terminate “at will” an employment relationship for any reason other than an illegal reason and 2. One of those illegal reasons is discrimination based on a specific personal trait, such as race or gender. Notably, political ideology is not on the list of protected traits in the Civil Rights Act. This means that while a private company cannot fire a woman for being feminine, as that would be gender discrimination; the company could fire that woman for being feminist if she spends her time in the office talking about women’s rights issues.
Damore could attempt to bring a case against Google under the Civil Rights Act by arguing that Google discriminated against him for being a man or for being white. However, that claim would be incredibly hard to support. Google could just claim that it fired Damore because it didn’t like the memo he wrote. There’s nothing about the memo itself to suggest that the author was 100% a white man. Google does not have a history of discriminating white men and it doesn’t have a hostile work environment towards white men. In fact, given that white men make up the majority of the company, it’s a pretty safe assumption that Google’s problem with Damore is what he wrote rather than his race or gender.
What about California Law?
Although the federal Civil Rights Act doesn’t offer any protection for discrimination based on politics, California employment law does protection against discrimination based on “political activities or affiliations.” Although this phrase is somewhat vague, there is some consensus on what kinds of activities are protected. Employers cannot restrict or retaliate against their employees for what they do outside of the office. Employers cannot terminate or demote employees simply for having opposing political views or affiliations.
Damore potentially has a case based on this claim, as he was fired for expressing his views on gender and for his political views. Damore wrote a reasoned memo on what he thought were problematic political biases and Google responded by firing him. However, Google could argue that he wasn’t fired for his political affiliations or his activities, but for creating a hostile work environment. According to Google, Damore’s views would make the women at their offices uncomfortable. This is a real issue for Google, because promotions are based on peer review; Google cannot trust that Damore will be treated fairly by women or that he will treat women fairly after his memo ended up in the evening news.
Is Damore a Whistleblower?
Another route Damore could try is claiming to be a whistleblower. Affirmative action programs are often viewed as discriminatory against “majority” groups like white men. Since employment law prohibits discrimination based on race or gender, Google’s plans to admit only women into certain programs would be potentially discriminatory. If that is true, then Damore is a whistleblower against such discrimination.
Of course, claiming to be a whistleblower only works if Google is breaking the law and Damore is reporting it. Affirmative action programs have survived this long because courts often do not consider them illegal discrimination. The racism and sexism that employment law protects against is based on animus – hostility towards a certain group. Proponents have often won by arguing that their discrimination is based on helping certain groups rather than putting down other groups. Affirmative action is not about being anti-men, but pro-women. The fact that there are only two genders and that one is automatically disfavored if the other gender is favored doesn’t often enter into the analysis.
A Sign of the Times
Ironically, the Civil Rights Act that an employment attorney might try to invoke is premised on the very principles that Damore was writing against. The Civil Rights Act is premised on the idea of protecting race and gender. Granted, most employment suits are brought to protect specific races and genders, but the overall focus is on a person’s surface traits instead of viewpoint discrimination. At this time, there is simply no legal framework Damore could use to receive compensation for his termination.
This is a real shame though. Damore’s memo was articulate and very persuasive. It had a clear thesis, its premises were supported by examples, and it pinpointed specific problems and offered solutions to the problems it identified. To be sure, Damore himself makes a number of assumptions and has a number of biases in his own memo. Still, Damore makes a number of points that are very interesting and engaging. As a hiring manager, I did notice that men were more likely to ask for and negotiate for a higher salary than women. Whether or not that discrepancy exists because of biological differences is up to debate, but that is the point. Google should have engaged in that debate instead of firing the author of that debate.
Google has failed to live up to its business values and philosophies by terminating Damore. But the damage is not limited to Google’s reputation or bottom line. It is rare today to find thoughtful and intelligent political discussion in the public sphere; last year’s presidential election is an example of exactly how far we, as a nation, have fallen in that regard.
Google had a perfect opportunity to engage in the kind of frank debate that the public desperately needs. Google dropped the ball. Small wonder then, that a brainless sound bite machine like Donald Trump should prevail in today’s political environment, when even Google derides an opportunity for outstanding debate. I hope Damore finds a worthy opponent to continue his discussion. In the meantime, I will mourn for our public discourse.