So this week Google worker, James Damore, lost his job after circulating a 10-page “diversity manifesto” that ascribed gender imbalance to biological differences between men and women.
Personally, I’d have seen him fired for wasting his time writing a 10-page memo instead of doing his job, regardless of what it said. But Google does encourage its people to think outside the box in many ways, so perhaps Damore thought this was an appropriate use of his time. His argument is a popular one and, other than stating up front that I disagree with it, I don’t intend to waste your time taking it apart. Better writers and thinkers than I have been doing that for the last fifty years.
What’s more relevant and more timely, in my opinion, is the increasing intrusion of political factionism into the workplace. Damore’s manifesto is an excellent illustration of the alt-right argument that equality and diversity (and health & safety and, no doubt, other aspects of modern employment) are tools of a liberal plot to… well, actually I’m not sure what the plot is supposed to achieve, and the answers from alt-right spokespeople vary depending upon the particular narrative they espouse.
Now, it would be the height of foolishness to pretend that politics doesn’t affect the workplace or the workforce. Of course, the economy affects our hiring behaviours. A dissolved political union with our European neighbours will affect our plans for overseas trading. The legislation of parliament will affect the framework within we operate, dictating many aspects of our work and resources. And politics will affect our work in other ways, especially at the time of an important election or referendum. Water cooler conversation will shift away from the latest episode of Game of Thrones towards the real-life back-stabbing of Westminster and its international siblings. Strong opinions may be aired about one politician or another. Party loyalties may be worn openly (although a good dress code should prevent that from being literally true!).
It may even happen – it’s increasingly common in the UK, and has been an established practice in the US for generations – that the leaders of your business may take a look at the manifestos of the various contenders for power and decide that one party or candidate offers a better commercial future for the business and, as a result, make a recommendation to the workforce on who to vote for.
Whilst politics influences law, and law influences practice, we’re standing on a precipice beyond which political philosophy begins to actively influence practice without having to go through the inconvenience of becoming law. Within the framework of what’s legal, businesses must act on one and only one guiding principle: does it work?
By “work” I mean: does a particular process, strategy or action actively contribute towards the business achieving its goals? That doesn’t necessarily mean profit, because this includes charities, social enterprises and other non-profit organizations. And even commercial businesses may have goals that aren’t 100% profit oriented. But, with a few exceptions, it mostly means either reducing costs, increasing market share, entrenching a strategic position or growing quality. And all of those, ultimately, mean making more money.
Health & Safety isn’t just about box-ticking bureaucracy. It’s about reducing accidents that cost productivity and protecting (or improving) your reputation for quality. It’s about communicating a message of professional standards to your staff that will have a knock-on effect in other areas.
Codes of conduct are very similar. It’s not about abiding by some notion of “political correctness”, but about providing an environment in which people feel able to contribute to their very best without feeling threatened, harassed or insulted, because people who can contribute to their best are more productive and therefore make the business more money than people who are stressed out and miserable.
Businesses introduce, enforce and abide by principles like this not because there is a sinister police force out there making it happen. Yes, the HSE does enforce minimum standards. Yes, there are laws protecting people from harassment. But most successful organizations seek not to meet the minimum but to exceed them comfortably. And why? Because it works. Because any reasonable analysis of the return on investment in terms of improved productivity and reduced costs (and, ergo, higher profits) that arise from such practices shows that they work.
Which brings us back to Damore’s manifesto.
Whether or not his arguments about the biological predispositions of men and women are correct is irrelevant. The evidence is quite clear that diverse teams – not just in terms of gender, but in terms of race, age, sexuality and religion, too – are better at their job. They report higher rates of work satisfaction, lower levels of sickness absence and better relationships with co-workers. All of this, unsurprisingly, means that they also provide higher standards in every measure of productivity: quality, quantity and innovation.
Damore is (well, he was) a Google engineer. He’s part of an elite few, building our future on a foundation established on the principle of empirical testability. So when he and his supporters reject the empirical principles of their profession and instead adopt a position based on emotion, prejudice and social conditioning (in short, based on their politics) they must be removed from the workforce. This isn’t political correctness. They are an active threat not only to women trying to build careers in male-dominated industries and to minority groups everywhere, but – perhaps more importantly? – they are a threat to staff engagement, productivity and profit.
 Spoiler: they aren’t.