February 18, 2020; New York Times
Increasingly, employees at leading tech firms are questioning the disconnect they see between their personal values, the values their companies say they stand for, and the social impact of the products they create. In a New York Times Magazine feature from earlier this month, Noam Scheiber and Kate Conger take a look at Google. There, they find groups of well-educated, highly paid, and technically skilled employees challenging their organization over issues of public policy and personal responsibility that mirror actions taking place across the nation—and increasingly paying a steep personal price for doing so, as Google steps up its retaliation.
Google is described in the New York Times Magazine as “the American dream factory, the place where the world’s smartest young people wanted to be—where technologists and businesspeople could pull down staggering incomes while still believing that they were engaged in an act of altruism.” Now, those young people are challenging the larger social context of their work.
Google’s willingness to help the Trump administration and the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) leadership use its technology to execute their harsh approach to US asylum-seekers became a recent flashpoint. Upon learning that Google was working to win a contract from CBP, a group of “Googlers” began circulating a petition challenging this direction and asking Google leadership to walk away from this opportunity: “The winning cloud provider will be streamlining CBP’s infrastructure and facilitating its human rights abuses. It’s time to stand together again and state clearly that we will not work on any such contract.”
Once Google was known for expecting its workers to “act like owners” and, as the Times noted, to “pipe up in all manner of forums, from mailing lists to its meme generator to open-ended question-and-answer sessions with top executives, known as TGIF. It was part of what it meant to be ‘Googley.’”
But when workers challenged Google’s decision to work with CBP, the rules changed. The level of dissent has pushed a company renowned for fostering open debate and wide access to company information to clamp down. Steps have been taken to limit access to information and to control how questions can be raised and aired.
Laurence Berland, a software engineer, was one of five employees recently fired by Google. He described the impact on workers of a less open environment. “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. They become unwittingly complicit.” Rebecca Rivers, a Google engineer and activist who was also terminated for stepping forward, sees Google’s response as an indication “that pretty much any system large enough and complex enough can be co-opted for nefarious purposes.”
Google has brushed off the change in its culture. Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president for global affairs and the company’s top lawyer, sees little conflict. In an internal note, he said, “We have the potential to develop incredible products and services that can help billions of people around the world. We can’t let internal wrangling get in the way of that mission.”
Google Senior Vice-President Jennifer Fitzpatrick responded to the voices being raised in protest in a statement:
Every experience I’ve had past or present, Google is a deeply values-driven, deeply mission-driven, deeply principled company. But these are not areas where consensus is possible or even likely. We do have to make decisions. We do have to move forward.
From her perspective, business interests trump any conflict with organizational values.
Google is not alone in facing a disgruntled workforce. Fox Business reported on the unhappiness of Oracle employees with their founder’s decision to host a fundraising event for President Donald Trump. In an online petition signed by thousands of employees, they said, “As Oracle employees, we must hold our leaders accountable for upholding their ethical responsibilities. Larry Ellison’s financial support of Trump endangers the well-being of women, immigrants, communities of color, the environment, LGBTQ and trans communities, disabled people, and workers everywhere.”
Sarah Tracy, an Amazon software engineer, challenged her firm’s practices in statements reported by GeekWire. “We are responsible for not only the success of the company, but its impact as well. It’s our moral responsibility to speak up,” she writes. “Now is not the time to silence employees, especially when the climate crisis poses such an unprecedented threat to humanity.”
If these protests fail and business as usual resumes, it may indicate we are facing a long period of national dysfunction and discord, as the values we think our country has been built upon continue to break down. Tech firms will continue to use their creativity and financial clout to seek profit with little concern for the social damage they cause. At this moment, Scheiber and Conger leave us with a critical question: “If the nation’s most sought-after workers can’t stop their employer from behaving in ways that they deplore, where does that leave the rest of us?”—Martin Levine