Google's culture conundrum
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
Ann Skeet is the director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.
If you could swirl the political polarization and increasing demands for equity from minorities in the US into one giant melting pot hot mess, you’d have the past week at Google. A manifesto outlining controversial perspectives shared on an internal company website has brought several current tensions to a head at once, creating a leadership challenge in the form of a series of ethical dilemmas. This case brings to the forefront three realities: ethics is central to business results, consistency is central to fairness, and Silicon Valley has a significant culture conundrum fed by both.
At the heart of the matter are tensions of a capitalist democracy—pursuit of individual success in the name of the American dream encouraged by a capitalist economy versus the common good, the general public welfare our constitution was created to promote, a constitution edited to protect personal rights of free speech and religion.
A quick review of the comments section of any article written about this situation reveals how Google’s corporate culture and reaction to this employee’s essay matters to its business results. The company cites the need to maintain a safe and non-hostile workplace in its decision to fire the employee, seeking to protect its values while also blunting the claim that women engineers are paid less for the same work as men at Google that has surfaced in a Labor Department lawsuit against the company. We’ll come back to this claim. Comments suggest people are no longer using the Google search engine because the company fired the manifesto’s author or will continue to use it because they did. Google’s customers, their advertisers, will watch how this shakes out.
Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, has done a decent job in a tough spot. I respect his willingness to act decisively, invoking the company’s culture and code of conduct. He has drawn an appropriate pause for the company to say this is a moment that matters and why. Whether one agrees with him or not, he has provided his employees a clear sense of Google’s values. This action is clarifying culture in a model of ethical leadership I use to think about dilemmas faced by people in formal leadership roles. Clarifying culture aids employees in knowing if a company’s values are consistent with their own and in acting accordingly, both as they work and in their decision to be employed there.
Pichai’s decision does open the company up to claims of inconsistency, however, which may matter more to employees than advertisers. Is everyone at Google held to the company’s code of conduct? The corporate general counsel stayed on the Uber board of directors long past a real conflict of interests, as the two companies became direct competitors in the self-driving vehicle space, ultimately landing in court about the intellectual property supporting the capability. Is Google applying its code evenly across its ranks?
Inconsistency is eroding the creative climate Silicon Valley relies on to attract business ventures and talent. It must resolve this conundrum of its own making. Silicon Valley creates technology to ease access to information and enable free speech for users (a specific commitment reiterated in the Google code of conduct that talks about conflicts of interest, discrimination, and integrity). Together these are steps promoting transparency.
But the cultural business norms in the Valley today are more suppressive now than when I entered the work force here over 25 years ago and less transparent. Though Santa Clara County, the core of the region, was the country’s first ethic plurality by the late 90s, companies’ employees are not representative of this diversity. Tech companies have strict guidelines on media commentary. Even the highest-level executives when approached to speak redirect inquiries to companies’ media contacts. People in any minority, whether by birth or choice, remain at risk both in finding a job and keeping one.
Google’s own mission emphasizes organizing information to make it universally accessible and useful. But its current dispute with the Department of Labor is not yet about whether or not women are paid less than men. Right now the debate is about releasing salary information to enable a finding.
Can companies building products to free information in the world reasonably expect to contain it within their own organizations? Such a desire conflicts with business goals Silicon Valley companies claim and their self-image as pioneers and change-makers.
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