Is an employer free to fire an employee who circulates to co-employees a memo expressing ideas that are noxious to the employer’s efforts to avoid prohibited discrimination? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer can be, “No.”
A good example is the recent event in which Google fired James Damore, an engineer, for circulating a memo, or “manifesto,” explaining a basis for gender bias among computer engineers. His memo, entitled, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber – How bias clouds our thinking about diversity and inclusion,” purported to be a personal response to what he viewed as the shaming and silence of those in his field who have differing views about gender in the workplace, and whose views are inconsistent with Google’s “dominant ideology.” In the memo, Damore provided what he called “biological” explanations for why there is a gender gap in technology, such as: women are more neurotic and thus tend to pick less stressful jobs; women are more “directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas;” and men have a higher drive for status. Damore posted this screed to Google’s internal messaging board. It was a message to his co-workers, and hostile to his employer’s position.
As Damore acknowledged, engineering at Google requires collaboration and teamwork. Damore’s statement put Google’s management in a difficult place – how can Damore continue to work on any team that involves women? Further, Google’s employee review process emphasizes peer reviews, particularly by high-level engineers such as Damore. Damore’s expressed biases could cause questions as to the fairness of his reviews, and his position as a supervisor could be argued to create a hostile work environment for the female minority with whom he works. It is not surprising, then, that Google employees reacted by demanding Damore be disciplined or terminated. Google agreed, and Damore was terminated.
But Damore seems to have anticipated that reaction, and took steps to protect his own interests. As quoted by the New York Times, Damore included in his memo an unusually lawyerly statement: “I have a legal right to express my concerns about the terms and conditions of my working environment and to bring up potentially illegal behavior, which is what my document does.” After the termination, Damore submitted a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) claiming that Google’s upper management was “misrepresenting and shaming me in order to silence my complaints,” and reminding Google that it is “illegal to retaliate” against an NLRB charge.
Was Google’s action defensible? The National Labor Relations Act Sections 7 & 8(a)(1) (29 U.S.C. Section 157 & 158(a)(1)) makes unlawful violating employees’ rights to engage in “protected concerted activities.” “Concerted activities” are broadly defined to include “the right to self-organization, to form, join or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection….” Most often, “concerted activities” are associated with union activity, but the NLRB protects activity that is not specifically union oriented. This can include communicating with coworkers regarding wages and working conditions, and expressing preferences for political candidates who support favorable labor issues such as higher wages for hourly workers. In doing so, employees are permitted to use company bulletin boards, both electronic and physical, and company email, on non-working time.
The effect of this protection is that, if Damore challenges his termination, he will likely argue that Google’s decision to terminate him curtailed his rights to discuss his political beliefs and to engage like-minded employees about his view that the hiring and promotions practices at Google are unfair to men.
Because Damore works in California, there are additional considerations under state law. California Labor Code §1101 provides that “No employer shall make, adopt, or enforce any rule, regulation, or policy: (a) Forbidding or preventing employees from engaging or participating in politics or from becoming candidates for public office; or (b) Controlling or directing, or tending to control or direct the political activities or affiliations of employees.” While this may not control an adverse employment decision by an employer against a single individual, once coworkers learn that an employee was fired based on his speech or political activities, those coworkers may perceive that action as a threat or policy. As the Supreme Court has recognized, employees’ economic dependence on the employer can reasonably lead them to pick up even subtle signals when their jobs are at stake. NLRB v. Gissel Packing Co., 395 U.S. 575, 617 (1969). Here, Damore’s like-minded coworkers could interpret his firing as a threat to their employment should they express views similar to his.
The unfortunate upshot for Google is that Damore’s termination seems like a retaliation claim ripe for filing. Though many may personally disagree with Damore’s views on gender in the workplace, and he may have absolutely no factual or evidentiary basis for his position, he could argue in an action against Google that he was attempting to organize a group of like-minded workers to oppose what he believes are Google’s gender biases or an unfair reverse discrimination policy. His “manifesto” appears to structured for this very argument.
It is ironic that the policies of the NLRB and California Labor Code, which protect political organization and prohibit retaliation, are what may ultimately force Google to suffer legal liability for Damore’s termination for expressing disagreement with Google’s anti-discrimination policies.
As these events demonstrate, the application of employment law and policies in real world situations can be challenging. Protection of one worthwhile policy can seemingly conflict with others, and well-meaning employers can find themselves having to make very difficult choices. Employers should consult counsel experienced in the sometimes complex issues that can arise in many different employment circumstances.