Free Speech & What You Can Learn

Question:  You’re a recruiter.  You have a promising candidate who has successfully been through a couple of interviews.  You sit down and google his name.  The results show a picture of a white supremacist rally with his face in the crowd.  What do you do?

Much has been said over the past ten days about free speech in the workplace.  While there have been many reminders that free speech doesn’t really extend to the private workplace, an undercurrent is stirring.  The complaint has been that people should be able to say whatever they want without any consequences to their way of life.  If it is unfair for someone to get fired after supporting a white supremacist rally, frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Today, we are blessed and cursed that the world has become more transparent.  This is all thanks to social media and a 24/7 news cycle.  Depending on the privacy settings, we can see what people were up to ten years ago.  We can look at their Twitter page to see their “off the cuff” statements about the world, their coffee selections, and frustrations with a particular airline.  All of this is good information for employers.  Imagine these typical concerns when hiring that can be answered by media:

  • How will this candidate respond to stress? A rant 18 months ago about a delayed flight that when on for six tweets each with escalating hatred could be a good indicator.
  • Will this candidate be a good representative of our company? An Instagram post of her doing a keg stand in a company t-shirt could be okay for a beer distributor, not so great for a Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter.
  • Will this candidate be a positive influence? Chronically negative Facebook posts complaining about everything from her car, her roommate, her dog, her etc. could all indicate a Negative Nelly who could become a toxic employee.
  • Is this candidate passionate about the job? Tweets sharing articles about her job and what that job will look like in the future are excellent indicators of passion.

All of this gives employers a more complete picture of a candidate.  Social media and news websites can share a great deal of information that can reduce an employer’s risk too.  Googling a candidate can show you postings of violence or discriminatory comments that every employer wants to avoid.  It can show intolerance that when brought into the workplace can create liability under discrimination statutes or other liability like negligent hiring.

Here’s what I recommend all employers do – google candidates.  Look at what you can.  (Don’t breach any privacy settings though.)  When you do it, follow these steps:

  1. Decide what will disqualify a candidate well in advance. At the initial intake interview, ask the hiring manager what on social media or in the news would disqualify the candidate.  You can have standard disqualifiers, like violence, bad grammar, bigotry, etc., but there may be a few disqualifiers for a specific job.
  2. Make HR do it. HR is particularly aware of unconscious bias and may not be a decision-maker.  For these reasons, HR can compare the disqualifier list to what they find in a google search in as neutral way as possible.
  3. Wait as late in the process as you can. Googling all 600 candidates for a particular position is a waste of time.  Google when you’re down to your last few candidates.
  4. Ask the candidate. I know this may be shocking to some, but you should ask a candidate about what you find.  You could have the wrong person.  The candidate might have a good explanation.  Even if it is something for which no reasonable excuse exists (e.g. bigotry), by asking you get the much needed feedback to the candidate.  This does not have to be confrontational.  Just ask for their side of the story. On occasion, giving someone a second chance may be appropriate, but you’ll never know unless you ask.

If the “fictional” recruiter above discovered a picture of a candidate wielding a tiki torch at a white supremacist rally, the recruiter should feel comfortable moving on to another candidate.  Employment at-will has given employers’ the ability to move on.  They should use it.

I will fight for anyone’s right to free speech. Discourse is important to our way of life. That said, I will also fight for a company’s right to have consequences for that speech.  Employment and labor law have defined the limits of free speech in the workplace (talking about working conditions, wages, etc.).  While it is important to have all kinds of viewpoints in the workplace, no workplace should have to tolerate hatred, bigotry, or other sentiments that one gender or race is superior.  Period.

 

h/t to Ali McGinty for her review, smarts & co-teaching!
Photo by Vinicius Amano on Unsplash

 

 

Mr. Damore’s Folly

Yesterday, Google terminated a Googler who wrote a “manifesto” against “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.”  This is not surprising.  That said, the belief that Google only did so because of its “politically correct monoculture,” either fails to see the significant problems in the memo or intentionally glosses over them because of the hatred of political correctness.  Either way, we have some things to talk about.

Argh!  Stereotypes

James Damore’s memo has some jaw-dropping gender stereotypes about women (and a few about minorities).  They are more agreeable, women gravitate towards people-issues rather than coding, women don’t measure success the same way men do, women are not as ambitious, among others.  These stereotypes are woefully exaggerated.  Adam Grant, a Wharton Professor of Management and Psychology, wrote a great piece on the studies showing many of the stereotypes Mr. Damore cited and relied upon are not true.

We’ve known for a long time that stereotyping is bad.  It leads to discrimination, and discrimination leads to lawsuits and bad (sometimes really bad) PR.  Retaining Mr. Damore would have meant that Google could be on the hook for any discrimination he could have a hand in whether that discrimination occurred in the past or future.  Since Google (like many other employers) interviews in teams, this is a liability and not a small one.  (Not to mention the significant gender discrimination action Google is currently fighting with the OFCCP… but I digress.)

Argh!  Political Correctness

It is totally okay to dislike political correctness.  It is totally okay to define political correctness as someone telling a half truth or failing to speak plainly.  Political correctness is not using shortcuts – like inappropriate and untrue stereotypes – to make a point.  It is not okay to say that stereotypes are simply true and we should all just “get over it” in the name of ending political correctness.  How Mr. Damore couched his message told his co-workers that they are less than, that they will never be as good as him, that they have a place but it isn’t here.  That is never a message anyone (employee, employer, human) should send.

Everybody

Mr. Damore is right about one thing – an effective workplace has everybody.  The individuals and organizations that buy products and services incorporate everybody, so we should reflect the world around us.  That is what diversity and inclusion initiatives are designed to do, bring and keep everyone into the workplace.  Sometimes, we focus efforts on a particular group that is underrepresented because they are underrepresented.  Sometimes, we mind our own business as to what bathroom people are using.  Sometimes, we make an effort to hear the voices of others.  (Insert “rising tide floats all boats” quote.)  We try to include everybody not only because it is the right thing to do, but it is the best business decision to make.

Mr. Damore’s naiveté (and arguably something else) has gotten in the way of this.  He’s right, we have to make room for conservative, liberal, libertarian, socialist, and every other point on the political spectrum.  But we do this because it’s good for business.  Google’s own research shows that teams of different people – different thought processes, different personality types, different genders – make better teams when they work to make sure everyone feels psychologically safe.   We know that having diverse perspectives mean we make better decisions, we develop better products, we do better.

It’s what every employer should be trying to do.

Mr. Damore told Bloomberg that he was fired for advancing gender stereotypes, which he unmistakably did in his memo by stating them as truths.  The correct response was to terminate him.  Mr. Damore told a New York Times reporter that he will likely take legal action over his termination.  Nevermind the fact that there is no such thing as “free speech” in the workplace.

P.S.  I am raising two white men.  I understand the feeling that they might not get to participate in certain activities because they are white boys.  But that is nothing – nothing – compared to the decades, centuries, that women and minorities have been locked or pushed out.  My guys just have more competition.  Competition is truly a capitalist principle.  So, bring it on!

 

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash