Opinion

Google and the case for messy, maddening workplace democracy

Why companies shouldn't be allowed to fire employees for holding toxic views

Last week, a Google software engineer named James Damore shot off a 10-page memo criticizing the company's internal politics and diversity efforts. Then on Monday, Google fired Damore.

But this isn't just a story about Google's institutional culture. It's not even just a story about larger national efforts to increase diversity and the ensuing backlash. It also cuts right to the heart of one of the American workplace's defining traits: its anti-democratic nature.

Damore's memo was civil and measured in tone, and frankly more complex than a lot of the coverage allowed — it begins, for instance, with Damore saying, "I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes." But it also suffered from plenty of faulty logic, short-sightedness, and, indeed, poisonous evolutionary-psychology-style stereotyping. Damore claimed that men have a higher drive for status; that women are more prone to "neuroticism" and "higher anxiety" and have "lower stress tolerance"; that pay and hiring gaps between men and women can be explained by "biological causes"; and that Google's diversity programs can therefore be discriminatory and destructive. Damore then proposed diversity programs of his own.

Understandably, his memo set off a firestorm within the company, across the news, and all over social media. But whether Damore should've been fired is another matter entirely.

It would be easy to frame the whole conundrum as an issue of "free speech" or "the marketplace of ideas." But it's not. What we really have here is a question of power and property rights: What forums can you exercise what speech in — and, more importantly, who should have the power to decide what's appropriate?

To put it bluntly, most workplaces in America today are miniature dictatorships ruled by their employer. "Workers can be surveilled by their employer, compelled to work long hours, and even denied bathroom breaks," Jacobin explains. "In most parts of the U.S., employers can legally terminate employees for being 'too attractive,' for having the wrong political affiliations, and for choosing a particular sexual partner."

In many other Western economies, employees cannot be fired "at will"; they can only be let go after a lengthy legal process. Laws often require employers to negotiate with unions and other labor groups. Some countries even require that worker representatives make up half of all corporate boards. Point being, workers have input of real consequence into how the companies that employ them are run. And they cannot be fired except under circumstances agreed to be fair by society as a whole.

None of this is true in America. We're a very long way off from achieving anything like that kind of workplace democracy. That's why I think that liberals who called for Damore's firing will come to regret it. If America is ever to attain true workplace democracy, it will require big coalitions — including people who hold otherwise unpleasant ideas like Damore's.

So even as the left fights to expand and solidify anti-discrimination law that protects people on the basis of sex, gender, orientation, and identity, it should fight to expand those protections to include ideological and political beliefs as well. Seek common ground not by expanding employers' freedom to hire, fire, and deny service, but by further restricting it in ways that show good faith to people who sometimes fall on the right.

By all accounts Damore himself is a very privileged individual, and will most likely land on his feet. But what happened to him is a threat that hangs over every American worker, most of whom are far less privileged: from the flight attendants Lena Dunham recently ratted out to American Airlines over transphobic talk, all the way down to some poor sap working thankless and poorly-paid service jobs at Starbucks, McDonalds, or the rent-a-car counter. Furthermore, if employers are free to punish people over bad ideas that make them uncomfortable, they're free to punish them over good ideas that make them uncomfortable, too. (See: Colin Kaepernick.)

None of this means Damore shouldn't face consequences for his memo. Of course he should.

First off, his fellow employees and citizens are free to rip into him. Second, as Yonatan Zunger, a former senior Google employee, rightly pointed out, Damore's memo has created a godawful mess for the company in terms of workplace peace and cohesion. Demoting Damore, stripping him of hiring duties, or publicly chastising him with a company statement are all solutions with their own complications. But they fall short of firing.

A world of job security, labor rights, worker bargaining power, and workplace democracy is meant to create a sort of "town hall" environment of equals within the company. In that sort of environment, these alternative responses to Damore's memo would actually be much easier to hash out.

Franklin Roosevelt once famously called for expanding the basic rights and freedoms all Americans enjoy — from the civic and political realms into the economic realm as well. This included treating employment as a human right. These radical notions have fallen out of favor since the mid-century, even among vast swaths of liberalism and the Democratic Party. And it's high past time they were resurrected.

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