On Forgiveness and the Corporate “Family”

I’ve never watched “The Apprentice.” The fact that the star of the show is now the President of the United States hasn’t made me any more inclined to watch it. But I’m familiar with the show’s famous tagline, and I occasionally use it with my daughters, because it reinforces one of our family’s most sacred values, one that is the very heartbeat of the gospel.

Whenever one of my girls has legitimately dropped a logistical or behavioral ball – carelessly broken something, not followed through on a task they owned, said something disrespectful to me – and they’re genuinely remorseful and asking for forgiveness, after granting it, I look them in the eye lovingly and say “You’re fired.” They respond as they should, and do, with a rueful giggle, and maybe roll of the eyes. They know I’m joking. They know, to the depth of their souls, that there is nothing they can ever do that can separate them from my love. At least, that’s what I’m teaching them.

We’re a family. Family doesn’t fire each other. Family forgives.

It also repents, and makes restitution, and builds boundaries, and lays down paths, so that each family member in it grows into the human being God created them to be. But all along the way, it forgives.

Companies in my city are increasingly fond of not just self-identifying as a family, but of setting up structures and perks to persuade current and potential employees that they are one. From three meals a day, exercise facilities and after-hours activities, to onsite medical clinics and daycare, Silicon Valley companies go to extreme lengths to telegraph care for their employees’ needs to enable their optimal contribution and commitment.

Few companies take this concept as far as Google. Ironically, their standout benefits all have to do with employees’ nuclear families.  Parental leave is generous – 18 weeks for moms, 6 weeks for dads. (Do I dare note the inequity in that? Hold that thought.) They even throw in “baby bonding bucks” – a bonus to cover diapers, formula and the plethora of other needs new parenting creates. Should tragedy strike and a Google employee dies, the surviving spouse gets 50% of the Google employee’s salary for 10 years, their children younger than 19 receive $1000 a month each, and all of their stock options vest immediately. Then again, if you’re a woman concerned that your biological clock is ticking too fast while you’re trying to establish your career, Google will help you pay to freeze your eggs to delay family building altogether, indefinitely.

As nice as this all might sound, this week, one Google employee learned a hard lesson about the limits of the Silicon Valley corporate definition of family.

Google has been one of a number of Silicon Valley companies struggling recently under a weight of allegations of varying types of discrimination against women – from unequal pay, to disproportionate representation in leadership, to various hostile work environment behaviors. For the past three years, Google has been working to actively address the imbalances, spending in excess of $250M in recruitment efforts to build a more diverse workforce.

But it’s not working.

Last Friday, one of Google’s own (a “Googler”, to borrow the Google term) wrote a ten-page internal memo to try to do his Googley part to help solve the problem.

In the memo, the engineer (now identified at as James Damore) asserted that part of Google’s challenges with diversity stem from observable disparities in aptitudes and interests between men and women that scientific studies indicate are traceable, in part, to biology. Consequently, he asserts, Google should not be striving for absolute equal representation. They should, though, work to narrow the gender gap by creating policies that both acknowledge and account for generalized gender differences -e.g.  make engineering more people-oriented and collaborative – while continuing to resist tribalism in viewing both men and women as individuals, rather than uniform members of a group. (His most thought-provoking and regrettably overlooked suggestion? Addressing the current inflexibility in the male gender role.)


Damore works hard to make his intentions clear – he observes a problem inside his company, he wants to help solve it, he wants Google to succeed. That feels like a worthy goal for anyone who identifies as a Googler. Notably, he acknowledges that biases and blind spots are universal, which means he himself is likely to possess some, and thus is looking to promote dialog and discussion as a means of collective growth. Nevertheless, he framed his assertions, conclusions, and recommendations in ways that guaranteed the merits of his arguments would be ignored, subsumed as they were in a sea of generalizations and inflammatory phrasing.

In the name of doing something Damore thought was in line with Google’s family values, Damore dropped not just one ball, but a whole bunch of them. The question became how Google was going to respond.

Later that same day, Google’s new Vice President of Diversity, Integrity and Governance sent out an internal memo stating that Damore’s manifesto “…advanced incorrect assumptions about gender….it’s not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes, or encourages.” By the end of the day, Damore confirmed that he’d been fired.

Yesterday, Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai,  sent out yet another memo, in which he asserted that “to suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.” Damore’s manifesto actually concurs with this assertion, and some of its arguments are centered on ways to counteract that issue. Nevertheless, Pichai notes that as a result of the memo, some groups within Google are hurting and feeling judged. Consequently, Pichai states, he’s cutting his own family vacation in Europe short to come back to Google to help continue to steer the conversations.

When the story first broke, it triggered some vivid memories about time I myself sent off an email at work that got me in some temporary hot water (although not fired). The experience left a sufficient impression on me that, years later, when someone who worked for me did the same thing, I intervened on his behalf to mitigate the consequences.

I’ve read that those kind of empathetic impulses are more attributable to women. Perhaps that explains Damore’s recommendaton in his manifesto that Google de-emphasize empathy as a corporate value. And given Google’s still problematically male leadership, it perhaps also explains why they de-emphasized empathy in their treatment of Damore, and just stuck with the facts as they interpreted them.

The cycle of commentary on Google’s response, and the underlying issues that triggered it, don’t show any signs of slowing down. In the meantime,  James Damore is free to spend as much time with his own family as he would like.

One other than Google, that is.