What the Google Memo (Really) Exposed

The employee note on diversity may actually reveal an empathy issue shared at many workplaces.

In barely the time that it takes to write an email, a Google software engineer’s internal memo about how increasing the ranks of women in tech is a misguided goal because men are better suited for tech jobs had spread throughout the company and then to the outside world.

The Google executives fired the engineer, saying his memo violated the company's code of conduct by "advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace." Beyond that, however, some experts say that the memo indicates that there’s a lack of a critical skill—empathy—among members of the workforce. “Empathy is not only about ‘feeling someone’s pain,’ it is the ability to see things from another’s viewpoint,” says Doug Maxfield, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry Hay Group.

The memo states that Google’s left-leaning bias shames dissenters into silence when it comes to discussion on diversity and inclusion. It goes on to say that women are more neurotic than men and have a harder time negotiating salaries and leading.

Empathy is a way to gather information about the people around you. A leader who lacks it can miss crucial information, while a high degree of empathy can strengthen a leader's understandings of their staff, customers and external stakeholders. “This is a critical characteristic for success in today’s workforce,” Maxfield says.

Empathy comes in two forms, both of which, experts say, are helpful in the workplace. There’s cognitive empathy—the ability to understand another person's perspective, reflect on her situation, and consider the forces that may be acting upon her. Experts say leaders can use cognitive empathy to answer difficult questions, such as “What questions might a customer have about a new product?” or “How will an employee react to a job transfer?”

Emotional empathy is the ability to sense unspoken feelings by reading facial expressions, tone of voice, or other non-verbal forms of communication. Leaders with high levels of emotional empathy can pick up on frustration, excitement and other feelings that can help improve the outcome of sales negotiations, customer focus groups and a variety of other situations. The writer of the Google memo stated that this type of empathy should be de-emphasized because “relying on affective empathy—feeling another’s pain—causes us to focus on anecdotes, favor individuals similar to us, and harbor other irrational and dangerous biases.”

Andrés Tapia, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Diversity, Inclusion & Workforce Performance practice, says that the memo likely reflects the feelings of more than one Google employee. “This guy has put into words what a lot of people think and feel,” he says. The good news is that leaders can use this moment to engage with their workers who may feel that way, listen to their concerns, and explain why efforts to increase diversity are important.