A fortnight ago, a ten-page anti-diversity manifesto written by a Google software engineer was shared widely within the company, and soon found its way into the hands of news sites and the wider internet community.
The anti-diversity document argues that Google should halt its diversity campaigns and pursue a path of “ideological diversity” instead. It also says that “distributions of traits” could be the reason that there isn’t equal representation of women and men in tech and leadership, and that it should not be “assumed that gender gaps imply sexism”.
On Tuesday last week, the employee behind the anti-diversity manifesto was fired, but his screed has fuelled the fire of the gender diversity debate in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.
Historically, the tech industry has been a predominantly white male sector – something which many companies are making a conscious effort to change by hiring a more diverse workforce.
There are many issues that the story has raised, but one that has been overlooked is the question of how organisations can both ensure employees feel comfortable and confident in speaking their minds, and guarantee that any remarks an employee makes are neither divisive, nor make their colleagues uncomfortable.
In the case of the Google anti-diversity manifesto, the employee exercised his right to express himself but in doing so, he angered and upset – quite understandably – a large portion of the organisation, who rightly felt that someone who knows little about them is telling them that they are unsuited for their jobs – and for reasons that are outside their control.
The HR department must work with the senior members at any company to put together a list of standards or guidelines that consider conflicts like this and put reasonable measures in place that ensure the well-being of the individual and of the wider company.
But it is also the role of the HR department, among other things, to know the workforce well and to be receptive to the issues employees have.
To the detriment of countless organisations both big and small, HR is viewed as “just a function” rather than as a foundational part of the business
In more than 30 years working for global companies as a senior executive and chief human resources officer, I have looked to change this attitude and elevate the role of HR.
If the department had been seen as business-critical, and if those in the HR departments themselves actively showed how and why they should be considered as such, then it’s likely in the case of Google that the employee in question would have come first to HR to express his frustrations – and maybe those frustrations would have subsequently been relayed to senior management.
As it is, Google, a company that projects a progressive image to the wider world, has become the centre of a blazing anti-diversity and gender row that has occupied the headlines for weeks, and will continue to do so for some time.
There are, clearly, many lessons to learn from this episode. But what’s clear is that at any company, large or small, the HR department must be both strong and assertive as well as empathetic so that it can not only address employee concerns, but resolve them, too.
Rita Trehan is a global strategic advisor to Fortune 200 companies and expert on corporate culture