Google worker activists accuse company of retaliation at ‘town hall’
Worker activists at Google held a “town hall” on Friday where they alleged that the company regularly retaliates against employees who speak out about workplace problems and announced plans for a “company-wide day of action” on 1 May.
The meeting, livestreamed for Google employees in offices around the world, was announced after two of the organizers of the November 2018 global walkout circulated a letter internally alleging they were being punished for their activism.
The two employees, Meredith Whittaker and Claire Stapleton, provided further details of their cases during the Friday event. Their statements, along with anonymous reports of retaliation of 11 other Google employees, were published in internal documents seen by the Guardian.
“I didn’t walk out because I’m against Google, I walked out because I’m for it – because I wanted to make it better,” Stapleton said in her written statement. “I’m not speaking out now against Google – I’m speaking up for all the people who have been too afraid to tell their stories … and I understand that fear.”
The group subsequently published an internal document with a new set of “demands”, which include a “transparent, open investigation of HR and its abysmal handling of employee complaints relating to working conditions, discrimination, harassment and retaliation”.
The document notes that “even Uber” undertook an independent investigation of workplace issues, a reference to the ride-hail company’s response to the publication of a viral blogpost alleging gender discrimination and sexual harassment.
Other demands include a public response from Google co-founder Larry Page, and that Google meet the demands that were issued for the November walkout.
“Google has had six months to meet [those] demands; in that time, they’ve partially met only one of them,” the document states. “Google seems to have lost its mooring and trust between workers and the company is deeply broken. The company has no clear direction and is just progressing from crisis to crisis lately.”
Friday’s meeting is the latest manifestation of employee discontent at Google, which has faced worker-led protests over issues ranging from the ethics of performing work for the US Department of Defense to the handling of sexual harassment claims and expansive use of subcontracted workers.
On Monday, an anonymous Google employee filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) alleging that their employer had violated the federal law prohibiting retaliation against workers engaging in protected concerted activity. The allegation was first reported by Bloomberg.
And, on Tuesday, a former Google research scientist published a New York Times op-ed detailing his efforts to blow the whistle on the company’s controversial plan to create a censored search engine for China. The former employee, Jack Poulson, wrote that after he resigned in protest, he was given the following “parting advice” during his exit interview: “We can forgive your politics and focus on your technical contributions as long as you don’t do something unforgivable, like speaking to the press.”
On Thursday, Google published a blogpost announcing a number of updates to workplace policies related to reporting misconduct and investigations, following an initial round of reforms implemented after the November walkout.
“The commitments we made in November aren’t just about changing policies or launching new programs,” wrote Melonie Parker, global director of diversity, equity and inclusion. “We want every Googler to walk into a workplace filled with dignity and respect.”
Google did not respond to specific questions about Friday’s meeting. A spokeswoman said in a statement: “We prohibit retaliation in the workplace and publicly share our very clear policy. To make sure that no complaint raised goes unheard at Google, we give employees multiple channels to report concerns, including anonymously, and investigate all allegations of retaliation.”
Whittaker, a 13-year Google employee and prominent researcher focusing on ethics in artificial intelligence, said in her statement that the company had supported her work until after the November walkout, when “things suddenly changed”. At that point, she was told she would have to leave the company’s cloud computing division and find another organization within the company, according to the statement.
The transfer was moving ahead until April, when she helped organize a public letter calling for the removal of a rightwing thinktank leader with a history of making anti-LGBT and anti-immigrant statements. Shortly thereafter, the transfer was “killed”, she alleged, and her manager informed her that she would have to move into a new role.
“In the role now open to me, I would be tasked with administrative work balancing the open source budget and coordinating Season of Documentation, and would serve as a Google liaison to the Linux Foundation and other standards organizations,” she wrote. “The implication was that my choice was to quit or take this new role.”
Stapleton, a nearly 12-year Google employee, said that Google has been “making an example” of her since Monday, when she alleged internally that the company had attempted to demote her and pushed her to take an unnecessary medical leave in the months since the walkout.
“They’ve sent emails to thousands of my colleagues, they’ve spoken in company meetings saying there is no truth to my claims,” she said in her written statement. “It’s an attempt to destroy my character and my career and to intimidate others from speaking out. They’re making an example of me and I’m afraid it’s working; my colleagues are scared. My question for them is: why in the world would I subject myself to that if this isn’t true?
“Why would I volunteer for this public humiliation if I didn’t believe something deeply wrong had happened here?”