How do we Speak Up at Work?


When Google fired James Domare over his memo Google’s Idealogical Echo Chamber, my first reaction was one of surprise. Surely that was too extreme. I come from Malaysia where it’s hard to fire someone. You need to have strong grounds, give them a chance to respond and follow a fair process. Another thing was bugging me. I advocate speaking up within organisations and the fact that someone was fired for sharing his opinion did not sit well with me.

Then I read the memo and it shocked me. I stand for women empowerment and Damore argued that women were less likely to be in STEM and leadership because of their biological differences. In this day and age? Where school girls used to be actively discouraged from pursuing STEM because “that’s a boy’s job”, we now focus on breaking the stranglehold the Boys Club has on Silicon Valley.

Google is trying hard as its being criticised for too few women and minorities: Only 20% of Google technical staff are women (31% overall). Gender pay gap allegations resulted in Department of Labor queries and 60 potential lawsuits.

Setting Damore’s memo in this context puts Google in an awkward situation and sets back women empowerment.

In the past week, there have been numerous experts arguing for and against Damore’s factual points. I won’t go into that. Instead I will view this from a Speak Up angle. Can an employee speak up on an issue that goes against his employer’s directions and values? If a company like Google strives for open communication which I wholeheartedly support, can it fire someone for speaking up?

Most importantly, what signal does this send to the average age earner who feels the need to bring to light some serious wrongdoing within the organisation but fears losing her job?

I started Speak Up upon observing that corporate wrongdoing rarely happens in a vacuum. The rogue employee is surrounded by witnesses and enablers who are afraid to whistle blow for fear of being fired. Since writing my Speak Up theme, followers have shared their own retaliation for speaking up stories. Wells Fargo fired their whistleblowers. The fear is real.

I’ve noticed that leaders are often caught out when something bad happens. If so many of people knew, why did no one tell me? Simple. You are unapproachable and your people are disempowered and afraid.

It’s important to create an open corporate culture with clear and easy communication between employees and leadership. Problems like corruption and fraud are more likely to fester in a closed environment where employees are ruled by fear rather than empowerment and trust.

So how do you move forward? Your people need to feel safe speaking up, and when they do, you have to listen. Openly. No judgment, no blame, no defensiveness. Listen to understand. Leaders have to create the safe space for people to raise issues without fear. Leaders have to listen. And take action.

How did James Damore speak up? 

How did Sundar Pichai listen? 

As an employee, how you speak up determines how your leaders will respond to you. As a leader, how you listen and respond determines whether your people will raise their concerns with you. You do not want silence and a bunch of yes men. That can bring your company down.

There are 5 stages to create a speak up culture:

  1. Identify the issues which people need to speak up on.
  2. Provide sufficient channels for people speak up.
  3. Understand the barriers to speaking up.
  4. Listen, engage and respond.
  5. Create safe spaces.

1. Step 1: Identify what you are Speaking Up on and Who are you Speaking Up For?

As an employee, there are many issues you might want to raise to the bosses: new ideas, concerns about the company’s direction, unfair treatment, safety concerns, harassment or wrongdoing.

You are more likely to be heard if you speak up for more people than just yourself.

  1. Speak Up for Yourself Why does your colleague get mobile phone privileges and you don’t? A person in another city gets higher transport allowance than you do. 
  2. Speak Up for Another : Your boss constantly humiliates your colleague in front of others. You have seen the once bright and eager fresh graduate become withdrawn and lose confidence.
  3. Speak Up for the CompanyThe cost cutting drive has safety consequences and you notice that the factory is buying cheaper but lower quality materials which could cause breakdowns and accidents. 

Issues around safety, corruption, unethical conduct tend to fall under the third category and it is imperative that leadership pays attention. Sometimes innovative ideas and caution around company direction can fall under the third category. Harassment, sexual harassment and discrimination can fall under the first or second category.

What did Damore Speak Up on and Who was he Speaking for?

Damore raised several issues in his memo:

  1. He felt he was a minority as a conservative within a liberal progressive culture. He and others like him felt shamed into silence.
  2. Google’s diversity initiatives made no difference in increasing women numbers because women were biologically unsuited for technology.
  3. End practices which he saw as discriminatory.

All issues point to the same core: unfairness and not being heard. He was speaking for himself and for others like him (White, Male, Conservative) within Google.

Step 2: How should you Speak Up?

You have identified the issue. If you wanted to raise possible fraud, you would go to Compliance. You could use the company hotline if there is one. For less serious issues, you should feel safe enough raising it directly with your boss or colleague.

Many companies have protocols in place for speaking up. Oil and Gas companies for instance have clear online or paper report forms where you can raise a safety concern. US public listed companies must have independently run ethics hotlines allowing anonymous reporting (60% of fraud reports are made anonymously). Many organisations have HR protocols in place to handle employee grievances which includes harassment and sexual harassment.

In an open culture, employees should feel safe discussing difficult issues with each other and management. A closed toxic environment shuts down conversations and leaders must be alert to nip toxicity in the bud. Anti-harassment training is critical.

In the anti-harassment training I have conducted, we get people to talk about what they find offensive and hurtful if said by a colleague. It is powerful when you hear your colleague explain how hurt they are by a statement you thought was funny and harmless.

You are too young for this assignment.

Only engineers who studied in the US can do this job ( said to someone who studied locally in Malaysia).

All Thai girls are easy ( directed to a Thai female colleague).

People from Alabama are clueless in the big city ( a group laughing in front of someone who comes from Alabama).

These are off the cuff remarks that can be deeply hurtful when directed at someone in the workplace and contributes to a toxic workplace culture. Responsible employers need to make clear that people think before they speak or write something that can cause offence.

The key is HOW you say it: Be Respectful, Don’t Hurt Others

Damore’s memo was hurtful.

Women, on average have more.. Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance)

Women on average are more prone to anxiety

Google has created diversity practices – hiring practices which can effectively lower the bar for “diversity” candidates ( casts aspersions on the ability of minorities hired)

People were hurt.

“.. to have us all lumped into one sort of category like that and to have such a baseless claim made about who we are, and to have it positioned as fact — as scientific fact — I don’t know how we could feel anything but attacked by that.

Lauren, Google product designer (her full name was not revealed by the Business Insider due to potential online attacks against her)

“… when I saw the memo  that circulated last week, I once again felt that pain, and empathized with the pain it must have caused others. I thought about the women at Google who are now facing a very public discussion about their abilities, sparked by one of their own co-workers.

Susan Wojcicki, YouTube CEO

Had Damore focused on the core of his discontent: I feel unfairly treated and not heard rather than argue women are unsuitable for tech, he may have been taken more seriously, and possibly able to progress real change for the “non progressive” staff.

Who should you Speak Up to? Everyone or the Decision Makers?

Who you speak to is important. If you witnessed sexual harassment, you would approach HR. Don’t gossip to half the office canteen about it. There is a degree of sensitivity involved for both the person harassed and the harasser. Allow the company to investigate.

Similarly, if you felt the company was off track with its goals and wanted to help fix it, you would approach the manager directly responsible for that particular goal. You might speak to her team. This enables the manager responsible to hear you, consider your points, discuss with others, decide and tell you the resolution. The manager may or may not change the goal after taking into account the bigger context. If this is not your area, you may not be aware of other pressures and factors that make a decision.

The moment you e-mail everyone in the company with your criticism of a company goal, even if you have backed it up with solid research, you have put an end to the conversation. Why?

It’s like telling your brother why his girlfriend is bad for him at the entire Thanksgiving family table. However valid you think your concerns are, you have succeeded in ending the conversation with him. You upset him and he’s stopped listening. You created tension at the table and people are unsure about how to behave around you.

You have created defensiveness, distrust, dislike, uncertainty and an unwillingness for people to interact with you. You can avoid your family but you cannot avoid your bosses and colleagues.

Possibly Damore did try raising his concerns directly with HR or the leadership. Perhaps out of sheer frustration at not being heard, he resorted to company-wide e-mail. I will talk about how leadership need to listen in Part 2 of this article. And having heard Damore, should Google have continued to fire him?

If you wanted to speak up against the company’s direction, how best should you do so? If the company ignores you, what is your most effective recourse? Share your views and experience in the comments below.

This is the first in a three part series examining the Google Memo case and how Speak Up principles apply. In part 2, I will explain the barriers people face in speaking up and how leaders need to listen and receive feedback in a way that is open and safe. Did Sundar Pichai do the right thing in firing Damore? Part 3 explores safe spaces, something that Damore alluded to throughout his memo where non progressives felt shamed into silence.

I am a Speak Up Leader and Change Agent. I speak, write and advise leaders who want to create an open corporate culture especially to address areas of corporate risk. My focus: Ethics, Harassment, Wrongdoing and Safety.

Follow me on LinkedIN and Twitter @SpeakUpAtWork to get insight into various corporate scandals and Speaking Up. For further inquiries, you may e-mail me or send me a mail through LinkedIn.