Back in 2009, Netflix published a slide deck that advocated for collaborative cultures in tech companies. The presentation contained a simple yet effective message that resonated with people around the world: On a dream team, there are “no brilliant jerks.”
I believe the time has come for HR professionals to widen the scope of the “brilliant jerk” category to include a fresh-faced figure in the world of job seekers: the internet troll.
The trollface, a popular internet meme
If you are wondering why trolls are so toxic to working environments, look no further than James Damore — the disgraced software engineer that was recently fired from Google after publishing a now infamous internal document. On the surface, Mr Damore doesn’t embody the stereotype of a troll. Judging from his LinkedIn resume, he appears a highly qualified and seemingly intelligent individual: he was an intern turned research scientist at Princeton, Harvard and MIT before starting a successful software engineering career at Google. This is definitely not the kind of person most people would take for a troll; but when exposed to the spotlight of mass media scrutiny, Mr Damore displayed all the tell-tale signs of classical trolling, including the use of pseudo- or outdated science to justify his inflammatory, rambling remarks; deeply partisan (political) behavior enforced by conspiracy theories and overblown comparisons; and a painful-to-watch tendency for self-victimization and martyrdom for lost causes.
While gulags were forced-labor camps in Soviet Russia, Mr Damore chose to be employed by Google for a salary and was free to leave the company at any point.
Even more insightful than his document is an interview Mr Damore conducted with fellow troll Stefan Molyneaux. I am using the word “interview” loosely because the ex-Googler spent most of his YouTube air time stumbling into short sentences and nodding at Mr Molyneaux’s diatribes. Once given a chance to explain his actions, Mr Damore displayed exactly the tribal tendencies, over-generalizations, verbal ticks, and group-think mentality his original essay purportedly railed against. Another perhaps confusing aspect of his YouTube performance was his delivery: he was uncharacteristically dispassionate and lacked aplomb. This again might seem atypical of troll-like behavior given their propensity for highly-energetic written and verbal communication. While clearly Mr Damore is no Milo Yiannopoulos or PewDiePie, I believe he will eventually find his inner troll voice in the coming months should he choose to go down the route of celebrity vloging; he has already set up a crowdfunding page, has taken steps to rebrand himself as a social media personality, and has been invited to speak on several alt-right channels.
Going back to my original point, identifying trolls in any social group (but especially in the workplace) can be much harder compared to rooting out brilliant jerks. By keeping their online identities and activity private, trolls easily slip under the radar of conventional HR screening practices. However, once infiltrated in an organization, they are able to inflict havoc because, unlike brilliant jerks, their opinions and actions usually trigger deeper and more damaging emotional responses.
There is a lot of work to be done to rid companies of individuals like Mr Damore but one of my several disappointments following the aftermath of this story (and the ones from Uber, 500 Startups, and many others) was the reaction from some in the public arena who thought Google was wrong to fire the engineer, especially when it became apparent that many of his colleagues held the same (or even more) extreme and toxic views.
While I appreciate fighting trolls is many times a quixotic task (I pity the team working to moderate YouTube comments), it’s time that companies designed a more pragmatic approach to hiring that is in tune with the realities of the world we currently live in. For example, job interviews should expand to include more than the traditional questions allocated to cultural alignment and emotional intelligence; hiring managers should be given the tools to explore candidates’ beliefs when it comes to the issues that continue to plague our society such as gender or racial inequality.
And once and for all, let’s stop making excuses for Mr Damore or turn this into a debate about free speech; these are all distractions from the facts. What he outlined in that document was not constructive employee feedback. His remarks were unequivocally wrong and his toxic attitude was intentional.
Responsible companies should be weary of employing trolls such as Mr Damore. Sooner or later, they will come to regret it — but by then, it might be too late.