Growing Pains for Google’s Employee Platforms

Internal Social Platforms Are Changing the Role of Leaders

This week, news reports are flying in about the “manifesto” that a software engineer at Google wrote and placed on an employee message board. The manifesto, as the New York Times put it, “angered many in Silicon Valley because it relied on certain gender stereotypes — like the notion that women are less interested in high-stress jobs because they are more anxious — to rationalize the gender gap in the tech industry.” According to Google, the engineer was fired for violating the code of conduct and “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace”.

However, while the discussion nationally is quickly turning to the facts around gender inequality in the tech industry, employees within Google are discussing both the content and the role of their free speech on internal platforms. Should a controversial opinion result in termination?

Google is also facing heightened discussion and backlash on its internal social channels—both from employees who are offended by the comments and those who say that while they disagree with his comments, they think their company should protect his right to say it. And, while Google may say the engineer’s views are in conflict with its culture and code of conduct, they have to come to terms with the reality of gender diversity stats that imply this engineer is not alone in his beliefs.

From an internal communications and employee standpoint, this story brings up a number of complex issues, but it’s particularly interesting as it relates to the power of internal social platforms.

Is Internal Social Media worth the risk?

Many leaders, uncomfortable with open dialogue, would view this event as a reason to shut down these platforms. They’d see giving power broadly as a recipe for uncontrolled messaging. And seen that way, it is.

However, I see it as a needed reflection of what is really going on in Google—an insight you wouldn’t have otherwise. If people aren’t free to discuss openly, then how can you trust that you’re getting a true understanding of employee attitudes and opinions? While it’s a difficult lesson for Google to learn, the reality is that they got what they wanted—employee empowerment and engagement—both in the manifesto and the reaction.

The price of open communication and empowerment…is open communication and empowerment. Every day, employers are saying they want open dialogue and communication—they want innovation from anywhere. They tie it to their values.

But do they really want that? Does the rhetoric match the behavior?

The reality is that, as companies race to be inclusive, transparent and collaborative on new social platforms, like Facebook’s Workplace, they have to be aware that open dialogue and collaboration are awesome and productive and lead to creativity—but the process can be messy when the “sausage-making” is exposed. Leadership will need to adjust to feel comfortable and benefit from this new approach.

The Changing Role of Leadership

A few weeks ago, I was with a Golin team at Facebook discussing the Workplace platform. One thing they pointed out was that Workplace doesn’t create or change culture—it amplifies it. And that can be understandably unnerving and threatening to some.

The challenge is, as companies are learning every day, technology and employee expectations are making it harder and harder to limit employees sharing their opinions and ideas. People expect a level of input and transparency in every aspect of their lives. They expect to have a say. And if they’re not getting it, they’ll find it somewhere else with leaders who want to hear their ideas.

Google’s Opportunity

As an admired employer, Google is often on the front lines of progressive change, and how they respond to this latest issue will be a test case for others in the balance of work speech vs. free speech. We’ll be watching to see just how much they believe in open communications within the company and between all levels.

Google should take this as an opportunity to commit to the path they’ve taken and strike a balance as a model to others.

What is that balance? First, they should stand firm against actions that go outside their stated values and demonstrate that certain speech that seeks to denigrate or demean a group broadly is intolerable. They should be clear and specific on those reasonable boundaries. Second, they should embrace the conversation sparked by the controversy. Open all doors to productive internal conversations about free speech and gender equality in the context of making positive change for the future. This is an opportunity, and Google can seize this opportunity to build a relationship that secures a trust between employees and the organization for years to come.

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