A memo written by a former Google engineer claims that the company’s human resources department and a senior vice president pressured him to stop discussing diversity initiatives on company forums, interactions that ultimately motivated him to leave the company.
The document, which was written in 2016 and shared publicly this week, provides a striking counterpoint to allegations made by former Google employees James Damore and David Gudeman in a discrimination lawsuit filed against their former employer. Damore and Gudeman claim that Google encouraged pro-diversity voices within the company and stifled conservative views. However, the new document illustrates that employees who spoke out in favour of diversity initiatives were reprimanded as well, and that senior leaders in the company discouraged discussion of diversity altogether.
Cory Altheide, the former employee who wrote the memo, began work as a security engineer at Google in 2010 and departed the company in January 2016. He recently published his account in a public Google document. Altheide posted several articles and comments to internal discussion groups that promoted diversity in the workplace and was chastised for doing so, he wrote.
According to the document, Google’s executives and HR team discouraged conversations about diversity – even when those discussions were intended to help promote diversity and inclusion within the company – because, as one senior vice president put it, they fail to “support a wide variety of viewpoints”.
In a blog post, Gudeman characterised pro-diversity voices at the company as a “hate group that dominates the discussion” within Google. The company tolerated “the hatred, racism and misandry of a small but vocal and organised subgroup who want to use Google as a vehicle of social change,” he claimed. Gudeman and Damore’s suit claims that Google discriminates against white conservative men.
However, Altheide’s document suggests that, in at least one instance, Google attempted to tamp down discussion that favoured diversity at the internet giant.
The conflict began in the winter of 2015, the document says. Over the course of several months, employees engaged in a debate about gender representation at Google in an internal thread titled “If you think women in tech is just a pipeline problem, you haven’t been paying attention”. The debate became contentious, Altheide said in his memo, and had to be shut down by Sridhar Ramaswamy, Google’s senior vice president of ads and commerce, and Urs Holzle, Google’s senior vice president of technical infrastructure.
“As both the tech diversity lead at Google and someone who cares deeply about our workplace culture, I respectfully ask that everyone stop engaging on this thread,” Ramaswamy wrote (emphasis his). “Google is not a debate club or a philosophy class. We are a workplace and we have an obligation to make sure our discussions remain respectful. Debates around topics like product excellence can support a wide variety of viewpoints and are great to have. I don’t think the same can be said for debates around sensitive issues such as gender, religion, race, or sexual orientation.”
Ramaswamy declined a request for comment about his post, directing Gizmodo to Google’s PR.
A few weeks later, Altheide started a new thread, which he called “Just Asking Questions”, that pointed out some of his co-workers were continuing to engage in debates about diversity that, he wrote, appeared to derail constructive discussion. The engineer noted in his memo that some involved in the discussions questioned diversity in ways that were clearly “not coming from a position of good faith” and shouldn’t be tolerated. The post also pointed to an external blog post written by a Googler that stated, “Blacks are not equal to whites.”
His post caught the attention of Google’s human resources department, which requested a meeting the following week, according to the employee.
“It was explained to me that ‘someone’ wanted to know what my motivation was in posting the September 2nd ‘Just Asking Questions’ post. I stated it was info about our industry,” Altheide wrote. “I continued posting (without commentary) articles of relevance to our industry about bias, discrimination, and social justice, as I believed (and continue to believe) these are important topics to address if any improvements are to be made.”
Altheide told Gizmodo that he frequently spoke out about diversity in an effort to instigate change at Google. “I had a platform I built for myself internally to point out areas where we were falling short, both internally and externally,” he explained in a message. “These sort of things would resonate with a lot of my colleagues, but the reactionary minority pushed back a lot on any broaching of social justice issues.”
In late September 2015, HR requested another meeting with Altheide, screenshots of emails included in his document show. But when he logged into the video conference, he writes, he was surprised to see Holzle – Google’s eighth employee – rather than an HR representative.
“Urs opened by stating he was here to discuss my ‘worrying pattern of posting topics that are divisive going back to 2013’ and asking me to explain my goal for my recent Industryinfo postings,” Altheide wrote, describing posts made to an internal forum. “I explained, again, that I wanted to point out that blanket assumptions of good faith in diversity topics aren’t data driven, given that the data shows not everyone is acting from a position of good faith.”
“As far as I can tell Urs is of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ school with regards to diversity topics,” he added. “This is best summed up by him saying ‘if the majority of your coworkers are Nazis, it is better if you don’t know about it’ because productivity.” Altheide wrote that he remembered the quote verbatim, and told Gizmodo that he was so struck by the comparison that he jotted it down after the meeting.
Holzle did not respond to a request for comment from Gizmodo.
In an email sent after the meeting, according to Altheide’s document, Holzle reiterated his request for Altheide to stop posting comments and links to articles that discussed diversity in the tech industry.
“As discussed, from now on I request that you avoid posting on controversial topics. I believe your intention is to make Google better; nevertheless I ask you to refrain from such posts since they are prone to inciting others to comment in a way which violates our policies,” Holzle wrote, according to the document.
“I guess he saw what I was doing as rabble rousing but I was trying to build the sort of culture,” Altheide told Gizmodo.
The conversation and the email led to Altheide deciding to leave the company, he said. He departed in January 2016. The experience of being reprimanded by an early employee and senior vice president was intimidating, he said. Because of his skillset, he didn’t think it would be feasible to transfer to another role at the company that wouldn’t fall under Holzle’s supervision.
“I’m leaving because I don’t trust Urs. I’m afraid of Urs. He inserted himself into what should have been a conversation with my direct manager, and ‘requested’ I stop doing talking about things he doesn’t want me to talk about,” Altheide wrote.
“The idea of trying to alter a company’s culture all by yourself is almost as stupid as the myth of meritocracy the tech industry is so in love with,” Altheide told Gizmodo. “The only way to even begin to attempt to create positive change inside an organisation purpose-built exclusively for the task of providing value to shareholders is through collective action.”
Google’s PR has not yet responded to a request for comment.