As a crisis unfurled at Google over an employee memo that argued biological factors helped explain the shortage of female engineers and leaders in Silicon Valley, some of the most pointed critiques of the company’s handing of the issue were posted to its own message boards.
Memegen, an internal forum that uses images overlaid with funny captions, was filled with irreverent posts that openly mocked how an email discussing the memo from Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, had leaked to the media so quickly. Other posts, seen in screenshots of Memegen that were shared with The New York Times by a Google employee, questioned why Google seemed to be taking cues from outsiders.
Memegen is one of many outlets provided by Google to allow employees to express themselves, argue, criticize products or policies, and even protest decisions by management.
Google’s liberal stance toward self-expression, enabled by those online forums, was created in part to show that it is not bound by the conventions that stifle more stodgy companies.
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Google has prided itself on its openness. Employees can search documents for information about different divisions within the company on its internal network. They can make announcements and share information on the employee-only version of the social media service Google Plus. They can use Memegen to criticize management and openly challenge executives with questions voted on by employees at weekly companywide meetings.
And Google employees typically have a lot to say. There are about 87,000 Google groups — essentially email lists formed around a central theme — and more than 8,000 discussion groups like “misc” — short for miscellaneous — where employees debate and disagree on topics ranging from the optimal temperature in the office to the brand of laundry detergent the company should use for washing employee towels.
That openness has gone hand-in-hand with the expectation that what was said at Google would stay within Google. That’s a big challenge when Google’s parent company, Alphabet, now employs 76,000 employees around the world.
The company’s decision to fire James Damore, a software engineer who wrote the contentious memo, has angered some employees who view his dismissal as a betrayal of this open-discourse culture. Google said he had crossed the line “by advancing harmful gender stereotypes” and many employees were upset about the views outlined in the memo.
Mr. Damore asserts that he was “fired for telling the truth” — a point he reinforced with his recently opened Twitter account @fired4truth.
Mr. Damore said he shared the missive, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” about a month ago with specific individuals and groups focused on diversity before posting it to a mailing list called “skeptics” on Aug. 2. Then, Mr. Damore created a companywide discussion group for the document. As more employees took notice, Mr. Damore’s words soon spilled out onto the internet.
He was fired on Monday, and the situation quickly escalated. Someone with access to an employee-only version of Google Plus made screenshots of messages written by Google employees pledging to create blacklists of colleagues not supportive of the company’s diversity measures.
The screenshots appeared on Breitbart News, which has celebrated Mr. Damore’s memo as an example of Silicon Valley’s intolerance of conservative views. A number of Google employees who had been outspoken on the matter started facing harassment on the internet.
On Thursday, as Google prepared to hold a companywide meeting to discuss the memo, questions submitted by employees for the event on another internal system called Dory started to appear in the media. That reignited concerns that internal discussions would not stay private.
A number of employees sent emails to Mr. Pichai and told managers that they planned to skip the meeting because they were worried that they would face online reprisals for speaking out. A half-hour before the event was expected to begin, Mr. Pichai sent an email canceling the meeting.
“In recognition of Googlers’ concerns, we need to step back and create a better set of conditions for us to have the discussion,” Mr. Pichai wrote.
In an essay published in The Wall Street Journal on Friday, Mr. Damore said “there was no outcry or charge of misogyny” when he shared the memo initially. Only after the memo spread quickly online did the company take action, he wrote. Many Google employees recoiled at the document after he shared it more widely last week.
Last year, a Google security official sent a companywide email imploring employees not to leak information. Introduced as evidence in a lawsuit brought by a former employee alleging that Google’s confidentiality agreements were illegal, the email was telling because it highlighted the importance of open discussion at the company as well as its potential perils.
“Some of the recent discourse on Memegen and elsewhere within the company has been, shall we say, less than civil. Memegen, Misc, Internal G+ and our many discussion groups are a big part of our culture — they keep us honest — but like any conversation amongst colleagues, we should keep it respectful,” wrote Brian Katz, a Google director of protective services, investigations and intelligence.
Google’s embrace of openness was tested a few years ago when an engineer created a spreadsheet for employees to share salary information. As salary information flooded in, the spreadsheet became the most searched item on the internal network.
Erica Baker, the engineer who created the document and has since left the company, said she was reprimanded by her manager for the spreadsheet and was denied bonuses awarded to her peers. Google employees said the spreadsheet caused some headaches for human resources, but the company did not take down the document.
In his memo, Mr. Damore suggested that Google wasn’t quite so open. He said the company’s political biases created “a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence.” He said that if Google couldn’t have an honest discussion about the gender gap at the company, it could never truly solve the problem.
Perhaps not surprisingly, his memo was also mocked on Memegen.
Shortly after Mr. Pichai canceled the companywide meeting, he spoke at a coding event for young women being held on Google’s campus in Mountain View, Calif. He stressed the importance of women in the technology and urged them to build things that will be used widely in the future.
“I know the journey won’t always be easy,” he said. “But to the girls who dream of being an engineer or an entrepreneur, and who dream of creating amazing things: I want you to know that there’s a place for you in this industry, there’s a place for you at Google. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You belong here and we need you.”