Professionalism/The GitHub Employee Dismissal of January 8, 2021

Background on GitHubEdit

GitHub provides a computer code hosting platform which helps software developers and other technologists collaborate. It has been involved in multiple ethical dilemmas in recent years. For example, it maintained a contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to provide software and support, despite objections from many of its employees. [1] Those employees created a petition which received a significant amount of signatures demanding that the company stop working with ICE, but nothing was done.

The company utilizes the messaging app Slack for employee communication. In their Slack channels, employees discuss many things, including, on occasion, politics. Employees have even made controversial jokes in a company Slack channel before. An employee who made a joke about Nazis and Jews did not face discipline and still works at the company, years later. [2]

January 8 Firing and AftermathEdit

Sequence of EventsEdit

On January 6, 2021, as the U.S. Capitol riots were taking place, a Jewish GitHub employee sent a warning message in his company’s Slack channel designated for employees who, like himself, lived in the D.C. metropolitan area: “stay safe homies nazis are about”. [3] One of his coworkers objected to this message, saying that it was “untasteful conduct for the workplace.” A back-and-forth discussion ensued, and two days later, on January 8, the employee who sent the initial message was fired.[4] GitHub cited “a pattern of behavior that is not conducive to company policy.”

When other employees objected and created a petition expressing their disagreement with the decision, GitHub initiated an independent investigation of the firing. [5] That investigation soon revealed errors in judgment, and the company reversed its decision. Additionally, the head of human resources, Carrie Olesen, resigned from the company. [6]

ResolutionEdit

This incident is essentially concluded and was primarily handled internally. Although GitHub reversed its decision to fire the employee, he declined the offer to return. He did say in an interview, “Me and the company reached an amicable resolution. I appreciate that they have denounced white supremacy and the dangers it poses to everybody.” [7] The second part of that quote refers to GitHub’s blog post where they addressed this situation. In that post, GitHub stated that it "[does] not and will not tolerate discrimination, harassment, or retaliation" and that "employees are free to express concerns about Nazis ... or any other form of discrimination or harassment in internal discussions." [8]

Employee’s Perspective and EthicsEdit

Diving deeper into the perspective of the employee who was fired reveals more to this case. The employee had previously been involved in a situation where he called out GitHub’s management for not being diverse enough. [9] He stated that almost all leadership roles were filled by white males and there wasn’t enough representation for other groups. In the midst of this controversy, he was threatened to be fired multiple times for speaking out. The only reason he wasn’t fired is because both of his managers came to his rescue and vouched for him.

The fired GitHub employee warned his colleagues about the dangerous events occurring in their area because he wanted them to be safe. He chose his words carefully, and with purpose. His Slack message was: “stay safe homies nazis are about.” He specifically called the individuals acting violently “nazis” because, as the employee explained, “We grew up saying [Nazi]. It was a story we told because we had to - the decimation of whole lines of ancestry were at the hands of people who went by that title.” [10] A simple warning like “be careful out there” would not be effective in accurately describing the events of January 6 or emphasizing their gravity.

Despite being offered his job back, the employee declined to return to GitHub. It is understandable that he would not want to continue working at a company that was so quick to unjustifiably fire him. The investigation revealed errors in judgment, and while GitHub did dismiss one human resources employee, they did not take other concrete actions that would prevent those errors in judgment from occurring again. Additionally, relationships between the employee and upper management at GitHub would likely still be damaged, as was the case with Claire Stapleton at Google. [11]

As previously mentioned, GitHub employees were unsuccessful in their attempt to stop the company from engaging in business with ICE. This demonstrated that GitHub employees do not always have the power to sway important company decisions. However, this did not stop them from speaking out about this firing. The initiative taken by the fired employee’s fellow colleagues to sign a petition is an interesting example of coworkers standing up for each other. Those 200 employees who signed the petition felt it was their duty to express their disagreement with the decision. Doing so was an attempt to help their coworker, but also an attempt to defend their rights and freedoms. A sad result of this case is that other employees may have felt as though they couldn’t speak up against racism or bigotry due to a fear of punishment. If they had let this firing go without speaking up, they could have risked something similar happening to themselves in the future. This protest was also a defense of the professional autonomy that GitHub’s employees felt they ought to possess. They can be considered experts in their field, and thus must be allowed to act freely according to their own expertise.

GitHub’s Perspective and EthicsEdit

GitHub’s stated reason for firing the employee was a “pattern of behavior that is not conducive to company policy.” However, the gravity of the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot likely contributed to the decision as well. Nazism and political extremism are very sensitive topics any day, and these riots only exacerbated such tension. Given that the same employee had already been involved in a dispute with the company regarding diversity before, GitHub probably hoped to avoid similar controversies on the future. While it is understandable that the company may not want employees getting into intense political arguments during work hours and while using company property or communication means, the single Slack message in question in this case was not close to extreme enough to merit a firing.

Despite all of those reasons for firing the employee, GitHub reversed course and determined that it was the wrong decision. Beyond the investigation which revealed errors in judgment, the petition created and signed by hundreds of employees created pressure to reverse the firing. If the company did not change course, it could have lost valuable and talented employees who refused to work there. Additionally, GitHub may have feared legal repercussions. If the fired employee sued the company for wrongful termination, it would have resulted in costly legal fees regardless of the outcome, and potentially an expensive settlement. Furthermore, such a lawsuit would certainly lead to bad publicity for the company.

Whether the appropriate person was held responsible for this incorrect firing decision or not is an open question. As implied by tweets from another human resources employee, Gia Colosi, it is possible that the decision was really made by executives, and the human resources employee who was dismissed simply took the blame. [12] According to Colosi, human resources fires employees “only if leadership asks us.” Technology companies have a history of protecting their executives even when there is clear wrongdoing, such as in the case of Andy Rubin at Google. [13] There is no way to know for sure who is actually at fault in this situation, but the question is worth being discussed and pondered.

Given that GitHub’s investigation revealed “errors in judgment,” it is logical to ask what those errors were. Was this choice to fire the employee a single bad decision, or did it occur because GitHub had a flawed conception of their employees, and what those employees ought to be able to do? The company seemingly did not respect the employees’ autonomy and maturity, and did not think they could discuss sensitive topics in a civil and productive manner. There was no evidence that the conversation in question negatively affected the employees’ productivity or relationships with each other in any significant way. If they existed, such negative impacts could have made the firing more justifiable.

The proper use of a messaging app like Slack within the context of a professional environment is another interesting question to consider. Apps like Slack are often treated much more casually than other mediums like email. Would they then be more similar to verbal communication that occurs in the hallways, lunchroom, or parking lot? If so, are the suitable topics for discussion in these messaging apps different that those that are suitable for official emails? Employers do not police individual conversations that take place between employees, but Slack messages are visible to a much larger audience.

ReferencesEdit

  1. Dickey, M. (2021). Fired GitHub employee who warned co-workers about Nazis is seeking legal counsel. TechCrunch. https://techcrunch.com/2021/01/15/fired-github-employee-who-warned-coworkers-about-nazis-is-seeking-legal-counsel/
  2. Schiffer, Z. (2021, January 15). GitHub still won't explain if it fired someone for saying 'Nazi,' and employees are pissed. The Verge. https://www.theverge.com/2021/1/15/22232766/github-employees-protest-jewish-employee-firing-warn-nazi
  3. Schiffer, Z. (2021, January 15). GitHub still won't explain if it fired someone for saying 'Nazi,' and employees are pissed. The Verge. https://www.theverge.com/2021/1/15/22232766/github-employees-protest-jewish-employee-firing-warn-nazi
  4. Dickey, M. (2021, January 17). GitHub's head of HR resigns in light of termination of Jewish employee. TechCrunch. https://techcrunch.com/2021/01/17/githubs-head-of-hr-resigns-in-light-of-termination-of-jewish-employee/
  5. Schiffer, Z. (2021, January 12). GitHub reportedly fired a Jewish employee who warned co-workers to stay safe from Nazis. The Verge. https://www.theverge.com/2021/1/12/22227487/github-microsoft-fired-jewish-employee-warned-nazis-us-capitol-breach
  6. Brescia, E. (2021). Update on an employee matter. The GitHub Blog. https://github.blog/2021-01-17-update-on-an-employee-matter/
  7. Dickey M. (2021, March 15). Tech Crunch. https://techcrunch.com/2021/03/15/fired-github-employee-reaches-amicable-resolution-with-company/ "Fired GitHub employee reaches ‘amicable resolution’ with company"
  8. Brescia, E. (2021). Update on an employee matter. The GitHub Blog. https://github.blog/2021-01-17-update-on-an-employee-matter/
  9. Dickey, M. (2021, January 15). Fired GitHub employee who warned co-workers about Nazis is seeking legal counsel. TechCrunch. https://techcrunch.com/2021/01/15/fired-github-employee-who-warned-coworkers-about-nazis-is-seeking-legal-counsel/
  10. Schiffer, Z. (2021, January 12). GitHub reportedly fired a Jewish employee who warned co-workers to stay safe from Nazis. The Verge. https://www.theverge.com/2021/1/12/22227487/github-microsoft-fired-jewish-employee-warned-nazis-us-capitol-breach
  11. Statt, N. (2019, December 19). Google Walkout organizer Claire Stapleton tells her story of the company's retaliation. The Verge. https://www.theverge.com/2019/12/19/21030681/google-claire-stapleton-walkout-organizer-retaliation-essay-go-read-this
  12. Dickey, M. (2021, January 17). GitHub's head of HR resigns in light of termination of Jewish emloyee. TechCrunch. https://techcrunch.com/2021/01/17/githubs-head-of-hr-resigns-in-light-of-termination-of-jewish-employee/?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAFK6i-JuHxWa3x3Ba7s_0HT5OpNiZHHf8pB4-_97KPIVMahtGBQoHQrd0XK7U3d5C3SpDDvFFZEIJc5BpBi6GmBOdYYTKE6Vvm5_v4l5sxICFcmrjyCsbCv4pDht2K1Dv1RIluR64td4UQymZBEZY1wzjpqyZr_H5leGzSPRVK5_
  13. Welch, C. (2018, October 25). Google reportedly paid Andy Rubin $90 million after he allegedly coerced sex from employee. The Verge. https://www.theverge.com/2018/10/25/18023364/google-andy-rubin-payoff-90-million-sexual-misconduct-harassment