By David Oates
Some 20 years ago as a young Navy lieutenant, my commanding officer of the guided missile frigate to which I was assigned called a surprise all-hands meeting on the flight deck. All 200 of us stopped what we were doing and got in formation fast. “This must be important,” we thought.
Within minutes, the CO appeared as stern as I’d ever seen. He barked about how pissed he was (his words) after just busting a young enlisted sailor for uttering a racial slur to a fellow crew member. Not only would he not tolerate these kinds of actions from his sailors, the CO shouted, but these racist beliefs opposed the very things for which the Navy stood. He promised that anyone who didn’t show the utmost respect for their fellow shipmate, regardless of race, creed or color, would be severely punished, if not kicked out of the service. The CO took no questions, angrily dismissed the crew and walked away. We got the message loud and clear.
That’s how a CEO responds to such an issue. Unfortunately for Google or our current President, neither one of them served as a surface warfare officer aboard the old USS Sides. If they had, perhaps they both would have responded differently to the circumstances that befell them last week.
For Google CEO Sundar Pichai, the was a willingness to set up town hall meetings to discuss the sexist comments made in a memo by now fired engineer James Damore. I believe that the intent to foster open and honest dialogue with everyone was sincere, but it still left me perplexed, even before Google was forced to cancel the events out of concern for the safety of some employees. While no one should condone threats against a person who professes women are less capable than men in any profession, I did not understand why Pichai would allow these individuals to have an audience within Google’s corporate walls. It goes against the company’s core values and potentially normalizes a belief that runs counter to the tech company’s culture. Instead, Google’s CEO should have published a memo stating “there’s no place in the organization for people who feel this way, and anyone who wants to join Mr. Damore out the door is free to do so.” Period. End of story.
Our President didn’t do himself any favors, either, by conspicuously leaving out a strong condemnation of white nationalist groups in his statement following the violence that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend. While members of his administration tried to clarify that Trump clearly implied his disdain for any racial supremacist factions, the story continued for far longer than was necessary because…well…he didn’t say it.
While I get that employing prudent and effective communication strategies means respecting other people’s opinions by soliciting feedback and engaging in dialogue, it must never be done at the expense of going against a company’s — or nation’s — core values. When dealing with a crisis like the ones we saw Google and the President face, the opposite approach is more appropriate. Make sharp, poignant remarks that support your stated beliefs. More importantly, declare unequivocally that any comments to the contrary will neither be entertained nor allowed. Leave zero ambiguity in your statement and don’t engage in a debate. This is one of the few times when it is neither appropriate nor beneficial.
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