James Damore, Memo Author, Files Charge Against Google (but Sundar Pichai Was Right to Fire Him)

He said he did it, and he was telling the truth. James Damore, was fired by Google on Monday for circulating “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” a highly controversial 10-page memo suggesting that women are underrepresented at the company due to biological differences that make us less inclined to tech and leadership roles and not because of bias. The memo went viral and began a debate that continues on both inside and outside of Google.

Damore said at the time of his firing that he had already lodged a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, and Wired has indeed found that complaint. That could put Google in an awkward position, since it’s against federal law to fire an employee as retaliation for complaining to the NLRB. On the other hand, one Google exec says the company was not aware of the complaint until after Damore was fired–so it couldn’t have been retaliating against something it didn’t know about. If that’s true and Google can prove it, the company is in the clear on that score.

It may still be in trouble in California courts, though, which is where Damore says he’ll next pursue his former employer under a law which makes it illegal to fire someone for complaining about illegal activity. Damore’s memo claimed it was discriminatory and therefore illegal to offer development workshops open only to women or to minorities. Whether that’s true or not, if Google fired him for saying so, legal experts say the company could be on the wrong side of California law.

Perhaps fortunately for Google, in his company-wide email, CEO Sundar Pichai went out of his way to specify that this was not the reason Damore was fired. He wrote:

So to be clear again, many points raised in the memo–such as the portions criticizing Google’s trainings, questioning the role of ideology in the workplace, and debating whether programs for women and underserved groups are sufficiently open to all–are important topics. The author had a right to express their views on those topics–we encourage an environment in which people can do this and it remains our policy to not take action against anyone for prompting these discussions.

Pichai explained at the beginning of the memo that Damore had been fired because his assertion that women are more agreeable than aggressive, less tolerant to stress and more neurotic than men made many of his female colleagues uncomfortable in the workplace. Those comments violate the company’s code of conduct and “cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace,” Pichai wrote.

It will likely take quite a while for Damore and Google to fight out their battles in the various courts. In the meantime, and whatever the final outcome, Google was absolutely right to fire him. It’s painfully clear, from the length and tone of the memo, from the memo’s title, and from comments like the one about women’s “neuroticism” that Damore likes to push people’s buttons. And he’s really, really good at it. In case were in any doubt, Wired also learned that, while at Harvard graduate school (right before dropping out to join Google) Damore wrote and performed in a skit about “Microtubule Jerking” and the women who helped with it. The skit was so offensive that the event’s directors sent an email apologizing for it to the entire department. Now that’s some serious button-pushing skill!

In my years in leadership at the American Society of Journalists and Authors, I’ve encountered many people who like pushing buttons and are good at it, writers not always being the most mild-mannered of people. Many times I’ve been part of an effort to treat them fairly. And every single time I’ve learned sooner or later that an organization is always stronger with those talented button-pushers on the outside rather than the inside.

No matter what happens, Damore will be causing headaches for Google executives for years into the future. Just imagine how much worse those headaches would be if he was actually there on the premises every day.

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