James Damore is gone from Google. But he will not soon be forgotten. He’s joined with a conservative lawyer to bring a class action against the company, accusing it of discriminating against conservatives, Caucasians and men.
The lawsuit, filed in a California court, certainly offers evidence that things were uncomfortable for conservatives at Google. And especially, that they were uncomfortable for James Damore after he wrote a memo suggesting that before Google went all-out trying to achieve gender parity in its teams, it needed to be open to the possibility that the reason there were fewer women at the firm is that fewer women were interested in coding.
But these internal communications have been stripped of context. Were they part of a larger conversation in which these comments seem more reasonable? What percentage did these constitute of internal communications about politics? At a huge company, there will be, at any given moment, some number of idiots suggesting things that are illegal and immoral.
That doesn’t mean that those things were corporate policy, or even that they were particularly problematic for conservatives. When Google presents its side of the case, the abuses suggested by the lawsuit may turn out to be considerably less exciting.
Lawyers always announce that they have a sterling case that is certain to prevail, even if they know they are doomed. And unless they can present strong evidence that there were legions of conservatives happily frolicking away on their internal message boards while enjoying the esteem of their colleagues and the adulation of their managers, there is no way that this suit ends well for Google. If the company and its lawyers think otherwise, they are guilty of a sin known to the media as “reading your own press releases,” and to drug policy experts as being “high on your own supply.”
There are expensive, time-consuming, exasperating lawsuits, and then there are radioactive lawsuits that poison everyone who comes within a mile of them. And this lawsuit almost certainly falls into the latter category.
Damore and his co-plaintiffs, for example, can count on future prospective employers looking at this suit and deciding that they’d rather hire, well, almost anyone else. It doesn’t matter how righteous your claim; for obvious reasons, employers do not like litigious employees, and they will go out of their way to avoid hiring those people.
But ironically, Damore probably has the least to lose from this case. If he had been fired quietly, even in a case of clear political discrimination, then he would have very good reason to keep his head down, find another job, and gripe to his friends over the occasional beer. But Googlers leaked his memo to the media, and then management fired him in a very public and humiliating way that was bound to make it very hard for him to get another job. By doing so, they ensured that he would have little reason not to sue the firm, if he could find a lawyer to take the case -- and also ensured that there would probably be a number of angry conservative lawyers interested in taking the case.
Perhaps Google thinks its market position is so strong that it doesn’t have to worry about piddly things like whether its employees spend a great deal of time using internal systems to slander half the company’s American customer base.
But this is too narrow an analysis. For one thing, there are quite a lot of conservative small-business owners, and small business is the lifeblood of the kinds of ads that Google sells. The company will be hurt if those business owners get serious about taking their advertising elsewhere, especially if conservatives pursue a secondary boycott, targeting companies that advertise with Google.
Perhaps even more importantly, conservatives vote. They elect legislators and public officials whose actions can deeply affect Google’s business. In general, Google has gotten much friendlier treatment from American regulators than from the EU or China. But American government is currently heavily dominated by Republicans who are unlikely to want to be nice to a powerful corporation whose internal communications suggest that it views advancing a progressive agenda, and bashing conservatives, as part of its corporate mission.