We live in an age when thoughts and opinions are shared as rapidly as they’re formed. The ubiquitous, instant access to online visibility in such culturally and politically-charged times puts constant pressure on the public to participate and make their voices heard. Sharing opinions online is considered by many as a new form of political activism — of doing your bare minimum diligence as a citizen of a digitized world.
This equates to a common compulsion to bring awareness to certain actions and opinions of others as a means to debunk, refute, and oppose. Visibility and awareness, while generally seen as advantageous (there’s no such thing as bad press, right?), are now used as weapons against perceived ignorance, wrongdoing, and the like. With this compulsion, however, comes the need for what we may call a responsibility to your reputation. Take for example the recent viral, sociopolitical news story of the “Google Manifesto.”
A Series of Unfortunate Events
To recap: James Damore, now-former Google engineer, caused an outcry within and outside the company after releasing what he called a “manifesto” about diversity in the tech industry, arguing that biological differences between men and women are the reason for the industry’s infamous gender gap, and that the company’s diversity policies are essentially futile and disadvantageous. According to Damore, the memo had circulated internally for about a month, during which time he asked for feedback and input.
The 10-page document, which claimed Google’s programs designed to hire more women were “lowering the bar,” was then leaked online where it quickly went viral in a concert of shares, comments, tweets, and articles by a public loudly declaring that it proliferated harmful, sexist ideologies. In a matter of days, its language and ideas were deconstructed and analyzed a million times over, a flurry of statements were made and amended, Damore was fired, the manifesto was taken down, and a lawsuit was filed.
Google fired Damore on August 7th, just two days after one of the first articles about the manifesto was published, reportedly for violating the company’s code of conduct by “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in [the] workplace,” and undoubtedly for garnering a lot of unwanted attention. It became clear that Google didn’t want their name attached to the manifesto as they condemned Damore and his document.
Damore’s responses have been swift and public. He’s filed a labor complaint, citing “a legal right to express [his] concerns about the terms and conditions of [his] working environment and to bring up potentially illegal behavior.” He also hasn’t shied away from offering up personal statements and online interviews. On Sunday, August 13th, he defended himself in Reddit’s Ask Me Anything forum, where he was met with a bevy of supporters, including some female programmers. But he also encountered critics who argued some of those supportive voices were fake users.
This series of events has prompted many ethical, cultural, political, and legal questions. Did Google have the right to fire him? Some experts say maybe not. Would Damore have been fired if the document hadn’t gone viral? He believes he wouldn’t have.
But legalities, politics, and ethics aside, other questions we’re left asking include, what’s next for Damore, his future, and his reputation? What does his experience, which calls to mind many before him, like Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick and his recent forced resignation, teach us about living and working in such a digitally-public, share-happy, and vocal society?
There Actually Is Such A Thing As Bad Press
First, the entire situation is evidence of the fact that nearly every move an individual makes has the potential to turn into a tweet, a status, or an article — for better or worse. The same is true for companies and every move they or their employees make. As we’ve witnessed, not even Google is immune to this reality. In other words, it’s easier than ever — practically effortless — to become part of a story you aren’t the author of.
For those whose reputation is critical to their livelihood (and whose isn’t, because everyone looks up everyone for everything), this fact must influence how you carry out your daily work and life. In a society where Googling is a reflex, the Damores, the Kalanicks, and Googles of the world simply cannot afford knee-jerk, uncalculated choices and actions that allow the Internet-at-large to control their fate.
The issue of “it’s my right” and related legal actions are often top-of-mind for handling a crisis, but this is a short-sighted approach. Gaining and maintaining control of your narrative in such a tumultuous online landscape is a challenging, long-term strategy and warrants serious investment in the form of a management plan or team, especially for those closer (than what’s now normal) to the public eye.
Second, no matter how careful you are, some form of bad press is likely over the course of a career. People have different opinions and ideas of what is right and wrong, and everyone makes mistakes of varying subjective degrees of severity. We just happen to now function in a time when the Internet is able to flare up and immortalize a story, regardless of what may or may not be true. This spectrum of bad press can range from an unfavorable review to a full-fledged scandal that can threaten a lifetime’s worth of work. This, again, makes it essential to have a team and plan already in place, both so you are less susceptible to damage and so the necessary recovery process is as painless and effective as possible.
Damore says he has no regrets, but it’s only been about a week and the consequences are piling up. He’s lost his job, he’s about to enter a legal battle, he’s gained a long list of critics, and his name is, at least for now, synonymous with a sexist scandal, despite his claims otherwise.
Will it be harder for him to find work going forward? How will his personal life suffer? It’s unclear how the rest of his story will unfold or how much he’s investing in having control over it, but we can be certain the Internet is watching and won’t be quick to forget his claim to infamy.