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How the Google Memo Shows What is Needed to Break the Dry Spell of Employee Engagement

How the Google Memo Shows What is Needed to Break the Dry Spell of Employee Engagement

At a company where employees hop-on and off the boat at the rate of tourists on a sightseeing city cruise, why has one ex-Googler caused a public uproar? Is the Google Memo case really just about one company’s battle with an unruly former engineer turned bitter? Or is it an omen of a revolution in the making?

Both, the Google Memo, Damore’s @Fired4Truth movement, as well as campaigns such as the recently launched ‘Dear Boss…There’s Something You Need to Know’ are a flea in the ear of the employer humming that people are not thrilled with the way things currently are in their workplace. Gallup’s finding that 87 percent of workers worldwide are disengaged, unfortunately, confirms this. The employer is readily drawn to “zap” this “flea,” but is that the wisest choice?

Employee engagement and burnout are the biggest concerns for employers in 2017(1). Kronos and Gallup have even declared engagement and burnout in a global state of “crisis”(2). As the scandal at Google deepens, an important lesson on how the employer might be provoking this global crisis emerges. This lesson is simple. From scanning our own groceries to building our own bookshelves, we live in a do-it-yourself (DIY) economy. Whether it’s self-service restaurants or “farm to table,” we participate, we co-create, we co-produce. The customer is no longer king. Instead, we are both, consumers and producers; we are ‘conducers’. While customers are getting ever more generously rewarded for reviews and participation, employees are getting penalized when they attempt to have a say in how their workplace is organized. The Google Memo scandal is one of the most recent examples. More than anything, what such cases go to show, is that on the one hand, employees are eager to help reshape the workplace, but on the other, the employer is still etched in outmoded, top-down models of management.

A Westpac employee recently shared with me that when his company’s latest engagement rates turned out low, employees were not asked what they needed to feel more emotionally committed to their work, no! They were told to “get engaged, or quit.” Naturally, this is a recipe for revolt. Suppressed emotions are bound to come out in places an employer wants them least: the intranet, on Twitter, at the coffee machine, in engagement statistics, and even, burnout statistics.

Pichai, Google’s CEO referenced violations against policies laid out in Google’s Code of Conduct as the legal justification for Damore’s layoff. The Code of Conduct is just another set of top-down prescriptive guidelines that we, the employees are forced to juggle in the workplace. If it’s not the Code of Conduct, it’s rules and regulations, if it’s not employee handbooks, it’s policies, if it’s not frameworks, it’s methodologies, and so on. To guard their interests and draw out more performance, employers have erected piles of dictums around themselves.

Imagine that we applied the same etiquette to customer relationships:

“Dear [customer’s name], We regret to inform you that your relationship with our company is being terminated, effective from [date]. You have given our product a 2 stars rating. According to the conditions laid out in our Client Code of Conduct, anyone giving a rating below 3 stars is not an acceptable customer. Upon termination, all benefits associated with this relationship will cease to be valid. You are requested to return the purchased product before [date] to the Client Services department. We no longer wish to associate our business with you. This decision is non-reversible.”

Reports like Gallup’s State of the American Workplace warn that “Employees are pushing employers to forgo traditional structures,” but this changes nothing in this equation. The “social pump” creating new top-down methods for performance continues to operate at full steam. If it’s not Agile, it’s Lean; if it’s not Scrum, it’s Kanban; if it’s not Cultural Transformation, it’s Employee Engagement; if it’s not discipline, it’s disruption; if it’s not Esprit de Corps, it’s Holocracy; if it’s not Corporate Social Responsibility, it’s Reorganization; if it’s not the carrot, it’s the stick.

Employers that are borrowing management processes to be the hand that rocks their cradle are doing so because their own priorities are focused elsewhere. And if their focus is elsewhere, is it fair to expect that ours should be upon them? Is it any wonder that 31 percent of employees feel unappreciated by their boss and that only half of the largest companies believe that their executives know how to build a culture of engagement? Employers who are thinking about things other than their people’s happiness, cannot make people happy.

So what’s to be done? The nine-to-five no longer works for us. The career ladders is less and less an iconic symbol or the American Dream.

The challenge ahead is to reinvent the social safety net to better fit this new economy. Executives and thought leaders are already putting their heads together and weighing the options, but progress doesn’t do well in a vacuum – collective discussion is needed to start unraveling these problems. Do Codes of Conduct still have a place in this economy? Are concepts such as universal basic income worth embracing with less hesitation? How do we organize labor? What would make you more engaged at work? Is it time to question the growth of an employer that shows signs of having grown beyond the well-being of the employed?

What are your thoughts?


(1) Gallup, 2016. The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis. “Worldwide, only 13% of employees working for an organization are engaged.” 

(2)  Kronos Incorporated and Future Workplace®, 2017. “95 percent of human resource leaders admit employee burnout is sabotaging workforce retention.”