Did you ever have a conversation get out of hand? It happened to me a few years ago. In retrospect it reminds me of this:
I worked for Google as a software engineer for eight years, first in NYC and then in Zürich. I resigned in February of 2013 and stayed on for the month following as required by my contract. In the office one day, after-hours, I was having a discussion about my post-retirement plans with a friend and colleague and made what was intended to be a humorous remark that mentioned sex. She didn’t seem to see the humor in it and, as usual, attempts to explain did not help. I often think I am funny, but I am not always right. This must have been one of the less funny occasions. She did not indicate that she was offended, but I could tell that she was not amused either.
I didn’t think any more about it – I had a trip to the USA coming up, and would not be back in Zürich until the end of March. A few days later, in the Google NYC office, I received a cryptic email message from the Human Resources department, inviting me to come to a meeting to investigate something unspecified and reminding me that Google had a non-retaliation policy. I didn’t know what it was about but the non-retaliation remark made we wonder whether they were investigating me! At this point, I realized I might have upset my friend so I sent her a note of apology. I didn’t hear anything back, no doubt a bad sign.
The meeting with HR was conducted via video conference by two women, one from Switzerland whom I knew and one from Mountain View whom I did not. They had trouble coming to the point. The one from California asked me all sorts of seemingly irrelevant questions, including questions about whether I had ever said certain things. I hadn’t, and said so, and didn’t worry further. In retrospect, though, I suppose they were allegations. Eventually, we got around to the conversation in question, which I recounted as best I remembered it. While I would never deny saying something I had, in fact, said I had two minds about the process. If mentioning sex in a conversation with a female colleague violates the company’s code of conduct, why was this any different?
The next Monday I found a meeting on my calendar. This time the HR reps were from Switzerland and NYC. The one in NYC informed me that I had been terminated due to a violation of Google’s code of conduct. The one from Switzerland explained to me that the fact that I had sent an apology was, bizarrely in my view, a sign that I had known at the time that my conduct was offensive. I found all this disappointing, but since I had already resigned I didn’t have a lot at stake. I had planned to finish up some work over the next few weeks but instead took the opportunity to start my retirement early.
Whenever anyone asked me what I like most about working at Google I always said that it’s that it treats its employees as adults. Perhaps that is no longer true. The company’s actions might seem vindictive but I am confident that was not the case. Bureaucracies are not vindictive, they just have their rules which they follow without flexibility.
What advice would I give to someone facing a similar accusation who had more to lose? Do not speak to HR without representation. I asked the HR reps whether anyone in the process was assigned to consider my interests and was specifically told no, there is no such role.
Do I recommend apologizing? If you used poor judgment, as I did, then you should give serious consideration to an apology. Might you damage your standing with your employer? Yes, but there are more important things. One of the most difficult things in life is to find you have hurt someone unintentionally. If I discover that I have done so my first priority is making amends as best I can.
– Adam Wildavsky, March 2013, updated October 2018