After reading Nitasha Tiku’s recent Wired article, “The Dirty War Over Diversity Inside Google”, a few thoughts came to mind with respect to Google’s current struggle with diversity.
First, Google is known for being on the forefront of implementing policies and programs that draw on cutting-edge research in organizational psychology and, indeed, what much of the recent research suggests is that promoting employee authenticity is a good thing. That is, by allowing individuals greater autonomy to be themselves at work, employers reduce their tendency to engage in “surface acting", a term generally used to refer to situations in which employees must conform to organizational expectations of how they are supposed to behave (even though their outward behavior may conflict significantly with how they think and feel inside). If you’ve ever felt the need to “bite your lip” or “put on a happy face” at work, you know how psychologically exhausting surface acting can be.
Not surprisingly then, prior studies link authenticity to a number of positive employee outcomes, including greater psychological well-being and job satisfaction.
Studies link authenticity to a number of positive employee outcomes, including greater psychological well-being and job satisfaction.
From a business standpoint, based on this research, why wouldn’t Google and other companies want to promote these important outcomes by encouraging authenticity, especially given their links to increased retention and performance?
As the article alludes, the problem arises when companies fail to consider carefully the potential “dark” side of authenticity, namely that certain employees, as hard as it is to understand, may possess hateful attitudes and beliefs that they may feel emboldened to express within such settings. Thus, while authenticity may be good for individual employees, Google seems to have overlooked how being authentic in certain ways may backfire within the context of group and team interactions, thereby undermining morale. This is not to say that we should “throw the baby out with the bathwater” when it comes to encouraging employee authenticity. Rather, companies must set firmer boundaries in terms of what are acceptable points of discussion, and provide managers with clear actions steps when it comes to addressing prejudicial attitudes.
Second, on a related point, one would be naïve to think that the current tension-filled political atmosphere surrounding diversity and “political correctness” in the U.S. has not played a role in the situation at Google. More specifically, as evidenced most notably in the events that played out in Charlottesville, VA, last summer, the Trump Administration has conveyed a message of institutional support for the expression of prejudicial attitudes, often under the guise of being authentic and not “politically correct.” Combined with Google’s culture of authenticity, is it any surprise then why the company is experiencing this “dirty war on diversity” within its ranks? Again, this is not meant to suggest that authenticity is wholly a bad thing or that organizations need to “clamp down” on their employees being themselves. However, it does point to the need for organizations to be more cognizant of how encouraging authenticity within a larger political environment in which diversity is under attack may backfire and to proactively address such issues before they cause serious damage to the organization’s culture.
Organizations [need] to be more cognizant of how encouraging authenticity within a larger political environment in which diversity is under attack may backfire and to proactively address such issues before they cause serious damage to the organization’s culture.
Lastly, Google’s seemingly neutral stance on addressing this issue has likely done excessive damage to its efforts to promote a culture of diversity, as alluded to in the article. As research has shown, when organizational leaders do not “practice what they preach," employees lose confidence in their integrity and lose trust that the policies and initiatives they espouse are ones they truly believe in. Events like these represent crossroads for organizations, times in which they must look long and hard at themselves in the mirror and decide who they really are and who they want to be. For Google, this is such a time. What is clear is if diversity is important to Google, senior leadership must do much more to constructively respond to this situation because it is not going to go away.
Christian Thoroughgood, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about him here!
Photo Credit goes to Jon Russell and Saaleha Bamjee.