Earlier, we blogged about James Damore, an engineer at Google who was terminated for his memo, which openly expressed his belief that women were not “biologically suited” for certain types of positions and criticism of the company’s efforts to diversify its work force.
The engineer challenged his termination by filing a charge with the National Labor Relations Board and launched a media offensive arguing that he was fired for his ‘conservative’ views.
I am pleased to report that the NLRB’s general counsel issued an advice memorandum affirming that Google was indeed acting lawfully when it terminated Mr. Damore. Among the conclusions, the NLRB General Counsel Jayme Sophir found that any employer must be given “particular deference” when it is acting to promote and comply with state and federal employment laws, and to promote diversity in their workplaces. Thus, “employers must be permitted to ‘nip in the bud’ the kinds of employee conduct that could lead to a ‘hostile workplace’, rather than waiting until an actionable hostile workplace has been created before taking action.”
The general counsel also confirmed that the Board has already found that employee conduct, which “significantly disrupts work processes, creates a hostile work environment, or constitutes racial or sexual discrimination” is not protected.
Using that rationale, the Board concluded that Mr. Damore’s “use of stereotypes based on purported biological differences between women and men should not be treated differently than the types of conduct the Board found unprotected in these cases,“ as such comments “were likely to cause serious dissension and disruption in the workplace.” Therefore, while “much of” the memorandum may have been protected, his statements about “biological differences between the sexes were so harmful, discriminatory and disruptive as to be unprotected”.
The Board also noted that Google “carefully tailored” its message to explain Mr. Damore’s termination and to ensure employees were aware of their right to engage in protected speech.
The Takeaway for Employers – This decision confirms that, while it may be fine, there is a line which employees cannot cross when they are “protesting” employer actions with which they disagree. Employees may not engage in speech in the workplace (verbally, in written or electronic form), which is openly discriminatory, or which is likely to cause dissension or disruption in the workplace. This should be empowering to all employers. While employers certainly need to be careful when disciplining or discharging an employee under these circumstances, they do have the right to set some reasonable limits on what type of speech will be tolerated in the workplace.