The Google-Sized Conundrum

The Google-Sized Conundrum

Google says it fired four workers for violating company policy, but workers are saying the company is punishing them for speaking out about company ethics.

The technology goliath that has long been known as a company that urges its employees to “act like owners” and pipe up about their opinions is now the subject of a very sticky story about firing four employees for, some argue, doing just that. The New York Times article by Noam Scheiber covers the story of Google’s recent crackdown on employee voices—but just those that violate policy, the company says.

Rebecca Rivers, Laurence Berland, Sophie Waldman and Paul Duke were all fired by Google last year on the grounds that they had all violated Google’s policies. Some were fired over phone, others over email, and one was even escorted out of the building before he could even grab his jacket or bag from his desk. None of the dismissals went into depth on the specific details of the employee’s violations, or what they had done to deserve termination.

For Laurence Berland, an engineer who had worked for the company for more than a decade, he quickly thought of the instance that Google might be using for his grounds of termination. He had been suspended a couple weeks pier for subscribing to the open calendars of several senior Google employees, whom he suspected of meeting with outside consultants with the goal of suppressing organized activity at the company.

During the subsequent meeting, Google investigators questioned him, and Berland had the keen feeling they were pressuring him to say something that could potentially get him fired. Then, days before he was fired, he had spoken at a well-publicized rally of his co-workers outside of Google’s San Francisco offices, accusing the company of silencing dissent.

Berland was not the only person fired that same day. All four of those released from the company on the Monday before Thanksgiving were somehow involved in an ongoing conflict between Google and employees who were also activists, and whom had been uneasy with some of Google’s recent activity with one customer in particular: the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

For Rebecca Rivers, her termination didn’t just mean she was out of a job. She had recently come out as transgender and was pursuing a medical transition, and she told the New York Times that she was terrified of having to apply for another job at another company. “It’s terrifying to think about going to a job interview because I’m so scared of how other companies treat trans employees,” said Rivers.

For Sophie Waldman and Paul Duke, the termination also came a surprise. They had been questioned by corporate security two months earlier about whether they had circulated documents referring to Customs and Border Protection contracts, but they had been allowed to continue their work without incident. Both were given less than fifteen minutes’ notice of the meeting that expressed their termination.

Google has long taken pride in supporting employee participation in discussions and speaking out about everything from company policies to national politics to personal opinions. Its some-odd 118,899 employees cover the globe, and it’s one of the largest companies in the world. However, this has notably changed in the last year as the company has begun to scale back opportunities for workers to “grill their bosses” in so-called TGIF meetings. These meetings were places where there could be open communication between bosses and employees, higher-ups and not-higher-ups.

The NYT article explains that “From the very beginning, its founders embraced the view that the value of its business hinged far more on the brainpower of its workers than on any particular lines of code it might own.”

Instead, Google has recently imposed a set of workplace guidelines that forbid a “raging debate over politics or the latest news story,” and the article explains how it has tried to prevent workers from discussing their labor rights with external people. It even hired a consulting firm known for its anti-union efforts. 

In November of 2019, four activists and employees were fired. The events ignited fury and outrage at a number of Google campuses; many employees—whether or not they had openly supported activists—began to wonder if the company’s culture of friendly debate was in jeopardy.

Google denies the correlation between the two. “We dismissed four individuals who were engaged in intentional and often repeated violations of our longstanding data-security policies,” said a Google spokeswoman. “No one has been dismissed for raising concerns or debating the company’s activities.”

Still, many are struggle to comprehend how the company the prides itself in “employees who change the world” and provides its workers with screening rooms, nap pods, and free snacks could be involved in a potentially-negative situation about employee activism.

Saving the World from Google
But what specifically were these employees speaking out against in the first place?

The simple answer is: foreign and political agendas being bolstered by Google technology. The article explains that in recent years, many Google engineers and employees had noticed how often Google and Facebook had become an “advertising duopoly with an unsettling grip on the entire world’s attention.” After the 2016 presidential election, many engineers felt uneasy about the idea that foreign governments had exploited their technology to influence domestic politics.

Other worried that the Trump administration might use their tools the support policies they found immoral. Actually, many Google employees were unaware that Google was at work on a project that would do something like this.

In September 2017, the company quietly signed a contract to help the U.S. Department of Defense track people and vehicles in video footage captured by drones. In December of that year, the technology had proven extremely successful. By February of 2018, Project Maven was set to be a soon-to-be-deployed product on the launch calendar.

Google’s involvement in this project was initially kept under wraps, but by February of 2018, rumors about it had started to spread beyond the small circle of engineers working on it. Concerned employees began searching through cade and documents and compiling their findings. Employees began talking about it in small circles and internal blog posts.

What’s the big deal about new technology, though? Well, despite employees’ fears of Google technology again being used for personal or political agendas, many feared the technology would be used to single out targets for killing. This, many argued, was not in line with Google’s values, and they wanted management to know about it.

The discovery of the partnership between Google and the U.S. Department of Defense was “a watershed moment,” said Meredith Whittaker, and A.I. researcher for Google. “If they were able to do that without any internal backlash, dissent, we would have crossed a significant line.”

Whittaker’s voiced concerns were met with the company dismissing her claims and downplaying her concerns, saying the government was “essentially using the same off-the-shelf software any customer could by”—a statement the activists believed to be false.

However, other Google employees rallied behind Whittaker, and in June 2018, chief executive of Google’s cloud business Diane Greene said Google would not renew the contract—which internal emails showed could have been worth up to $250 million per year.

While this seemed to appease some concerned workers, many employees had a hunch the company had other, similar deals. The activists quickly developed a formula for pushing back on products they opposed: research the project using Google’s internal search tools, compile the findings into a Google Doc, write a protest letter and gather co-worker signatures, debate the issue on Google Plus.

In the summer of 2018, another secret program nicknamed Dragonfly gained activist attention. The project would essentially censor search results in China on behalf of the Chinese government. Months of internal protest continued, and Google eventually appeared to back away from that program as well.

This Isn’t Just Business
The New York Times article on the topic discusses, too, how these activists were fighting for more than just company ethics and Google products they did not support. Many activists and opposers of these Google projects felt threatened by the company because they did not feel, simply put, welcomed for being themselves.

Many Google employees have felt they do not fit the “mold” of straight, white, male techies at the company, and they feel both marginalized and dismissed at the company.

The previous year, Google software engineer James Damore circulated an essay he had written arguing that women were less suited biologically for careers in technology than men. Many Google employees pushed back, sharing memos of their own: “We must remember that we are ultimately all affected by technology,” they wrote, “and that every one of us should have a voice in how it’s built.”

Flash forward to November 1 of 2018: some 20,000 Google employees around the world (including highly-paid engineers and clerical and maintenance workers) left their offices to protest the payout and other workplace frustrations. This company-wide, organized walk-out was the culmination of a number of internal scandals at the company—many of which involved allegations of sexual misconduct.

The internal distress in the company continued to grow. Activists coordinated weekly “walkout lunches” to keep their coworkers involved and mobilize against the next workplace outrage—whether it was about a product or a humanitarian issue. They organized chat groups on encrypted apps like Signal with discrete names like “care package delivery” and prepared tip sheets to help workers approach colleagues, in hopes of building a better workplace culture.

The activists’ concerns had one common thread, said the article: “executives had too much power over the company, and they had too little. They wanted more.”

While some senior executives spoke approvingly about the walkout, the company seemed to follow suit with many other employee protest situations in the tech industry: Google made clear there were limits to its tolerance for worker protests, and nothing significant changes.

Google did end its forced arbitration policy for employees—essentially meaning employees did not have to involve an arbitrator to file legal claims. However, it also announced it would no longer take in-person questions at companywide meetings and that all employee questions/concerns would have to be submitted through the company’s digital question platform.

Disputes continued: some on anti-LGBTQ comments and others regarding anti-immigrant language. Many employees—including Whittaker and Stapleton—began simply quitting their jobs at Google.

New Policies and New Business Partners
Soon thereafter, Google changed its policy on employee access to company information, and every employee received a companywide email with the subject line, “An important reminder on data classifications.”

The email served as a reminder that workers could be disciplined or fired for accessing material that was supposed to be viewed by only those with “a need to know.” Some saw this change as a natural and somewhat common change for the company that was increasingly high-profile and had publicity-averse customers. Others saw the change as a specific way to repress employee’s access to shared information.

Now, sensitive material would not necessarily be labeled “need to know.” Workers would be responsible for determining whether they should look at it or not. The article recounts:

“‘In my orientation, I was encouraged to read all the design documents I could find, look at anything about how decisions are made,’ said Duke, the New York engineer. ‘Now they’re saying that’s no longer OK. That is a major shift in culture.’ (The Google spokeswoman denies that a shift has occurred. ‘Google has a rich history of employees’ raising concerns and debating company decisions, but flagrant violation of our policy has never been part of our culture,’ she said.).”

By the spring of 2019, employees began to understand that Project Maven for the US Customs and Border Control was not the only business involvement Google had with the government. Actually the I.T. company has many past and current agreements with government bodies, and Google employees have little or misguided information on how the very products they developed are being used.

One engineer who worked on the Maps application for Google, Rebecca Rivers, found that the application she helped develop was actually being used to flag recent changes to locations of interest. She originally thought the technology would have humanitarian uses, like locating refugees fleeing war or climate catastrophes or helping retailers pick the stores of new stores. She found, however, it could be used by anyone—including the agency that separated children from their parents.

“It was gut-wrenching,” she said. “It was the software I wrote that I was most proud of.” The article goes on, saying many Google employees realized they, too, had been misled about the purpose of the technology were creating.

“If workers aren’t told what the real purpose of their work is, they have no agency in deciding whether or not they want to help with those things,” said software engineer Laurence Berland. “They become unwittingly complicit.”

The Here and Now
Last November, two Google employees—Rivers and Bernard—were fired from Google, along with two other employees, about their apparent misuse of confidential or “need-to-know” company information.

There has been ongoing investigations as to if or how any of the activists violated company data policy and if Google did attempt to infringe upon labor rights. In December, the C.W.A. filed charges on behalf of the fired employees with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing Google of retaliating over their workplace activism. The agency will decide whether to issue complaints, which are akin to indictments, and could eventually reinstate them, explained the article.

All of the details are still very much emerging.

However, Google later said that the four workers accessed need-to-know documents, but only some of them were labeled as such. All four said they were unaware of having inappropriately accessed documents labeled need-to-know, and none were ever accused of directly leaking information. According to the NYT article, Google could not point to a specific rule that said workers could not access material on colleagues’ open calendars or setting up calendar notifications.

Activists have both been struck into fear of further retaliation and, if anything, inspired to continue rallying. Many are pursing more information on potentially formalizing unionization efforts at the company. However, because of Google’s massive employee base, many are more fond of the idea of a so-called solidarity union—a union that does not seek certification under federal labor law.

Details and specifics aside, however, this Google-sized story of abounding details and complication intricacies highlights notable topics about workplace culture, employer responsibility, data security, employee rights and more.

Occupational health and safety is about protecting workers and their rights. This story merges conversations about worker wellbeing and company ethics—but the division lines are gray. Be sure to ask yourself: are you prioritizing your workers' wellbeing?

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