3 leadership lessons from Google's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week

Google CEO Sundar Pichai is having a hard week.

First, he had to return early from his family vacation to deal with the reaction to a controversial internal memo on Google’s diversity initiatives. Then, Pichai was supposed to hold a town hall Thursday afternoon with employees to discuss the memo and the firing of its author, James Damore. But shortly before the town hall was set to be held, Pichai said the meeting had been canceled due to threats to employees.

“We had hoped to have a frank, open discussion today as we always do to bring us together and move forward,” Pichai wrote in a memo to employees. “But our Dory questions [an internal app for employees] appeared externally this afternoon, and on some websites Googlers are now being named personally. Googlers are writing in, concerned about their safety and worried they may be ‘outed’ publicly for asking a question in the Town Hall.”

Earlier on Thursday, Milo Yiannopoulos, who calls himself a “virtuous troll” and has been banned on Twitter for harassment, had posted on his Facebook the social media profiles of Google employees who identified as gay or supportive of diversity efforts.

Titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” the memo, which suggested women’s biological differences made them less fit to work in technology, sparked heated debate inside and outside of the company, as did Google firing its author on Monday.

Although Google did not specifically comment on the firing, Damore told news outlets that he had been fired for “perpetuating gender stereotypes.”

Some Googlers sided with Damore, saying that his opinion should be protected under the First Amendment. Others supported his firing, saying that he had created a “textbook hostile environment” that would make collaboration with co-workers impossible.

Amidst calls for Pichai to be fired, he and his executive leadership team have held firm about their decision. Here’s what we can learn from them on how to manage during a crisis.

Communicate with transparency

Leaders in a crisis need to be as open as possible with employees about what they know. Nothing sows panic and confusion like gossip and rumors in an office. Stopping this misinformation flood means assessing the gravity of the situation and counteracting with information of your own.

Transparent communication means engaging with all key stakeholders who are impacted by the decision. By holding an all-hands meeting to answer questions and concerns, Pichai signaled that he was going to do this.

Signal your values

Whatever Google’s executives decided about the memo, the result was guaranteed to alienate some population of their employees. Being a leader means learning to be unpopular.

According to the Recode reporting about the meetings that led to Damore’s firing, top executives were initially split between fostering a safe environment for all employees and defending free speech. “Sundar had to make a call about what kind of Google he wanted to stress and he did,” one anonymous top executive told Recode.

“To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK,” Pichai said in his internal memo about why Damore had violated the Google Code of Conduct.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, who was reportedly in the meeting when the firing was decided, said that Damore’s statements about biology were what tipped Google into action.

“While people may have a right to express their beliefs in public, that does not mean companies cannot take action when women are subjected to comments that perpetuate negative stereotypes about them based on their gender,” she wrote in an essay about the memo for Fortune. “Every day, companies take action against employees who make unlawful statements about coworkers, or create hostile work environments.”

Commit to what you promise

After the town hall was canceled, Pichai still found a way to show a commitment to the company’s values by speaking at a girls’ coding event happening that same day on Google’s California campus. The audience was filled with young women who were competing in an app-building competition. When Pichai addressed them, he championed these future women engineers and coders, publicly challenging any detractors about the value of diversity initiatives.

“It’s really important that more women and girls have the opportunity to participate in technology, to learn how to code, create, and innovate,” Pichai said. “I want you to know that there’s a place for you in this industry, there’s a place for you at Google. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You belong here and we need you.”