Google employees are known to protest against their parent company, and we have seen instances of that happening when it emerged that Google was helping the military use it AI technology. Later in November last year, we saw around 1,500 employees stage a walkout across the world, to protest against Google's dealing with sexual harassment cases.
But looks like Google isn't too pleased with this employee unrest.
Now according to a report by Wired, two employee activists who had organised the November walkouts are facing disciplinary action for helping gather the protestors. They are planning to have a 'town hall' meeting on Friday with others to discuss issues of retaliation by Google.
One of the organisers, Meredith Whittaker, who leads Google's Open Research said that after Google had dissolved its external AI ethics council, she was told that she would have to stop her work on AI ethics as well as her work at the AI Now institute which is a research centre she co-founded with New York University. Here's podcast episode on Recode Decode, where veteran tech journalist Kara Swisher interviewed Whittaker along with Kate Crawford who also co-founded the AI Now Institute.
Another organiser Claire Stapleton, who has been associated with Google for 12 years, was told in an email that she would be demoted from her role as marketing manager at YouTube.
"My manager started ignoring me, my work was given to other people, and I was told to go on medical leave, even though I'm not sick," said Stapleton. It was only after she hired a lawyer that her demotion was reversed. But that still does not stop the thought of quitting from cropping up in her mind, Stapleton said.
"Our stories aren't the only ones. Google has a culture of retaliation, which too often works to silence women, people of colour and gender minorities. Retaliation isn't always obvious," said Stapleton in her letter (published below).
Google in a statement to Wired, said that it prohibits employee retaliation in the workplace and will investigate all the allegations.
"Employees and teams are regularly and commonly given new assignments, or reorganised, to keep pace with evolving business needs. There has been no retaliation here," said the statement.
In November 2018, according to a report in The New York Times, more than 1,500 " most of them women " planned to walk out of almost two dozen company offices around the world to >protest Google's handling of sexual harassment and its workplace culture.
Calls for this walkout intensified, after a New York Times story which claimed that Android founder Andy Rubin was let go with a $90 mn exit package, despite sexual harassment charges. Those who organised the walkout wanted Google to internally share pay-equity data and also make other changes in human resources practices.
"We don't want to feel that we're unequal or we're not respected anymore," Stapleton Product Marketing Manager at Google's YouTube, was quoted as saying then.
Here is the complete letter sent by Whittaker and Stapleton:
Hi all, This was a hard email to write.
Google is retaliating against several organisers.
We are among them and here is what's happening to us:
Just after Google announced that it would disband its AI ethics council, I was informed my role would be changed dramatically. I'm told that to remain at the company I will have to abandon my work on AI ethics and the AI Now Institute, which I cofounded, and which has been doing rigorous and recognised work on these topics. I have worked on issues of AI ethics and bias for years, and am one of the people who helped shape the field looking at these problems. I have also taken risks to push for a more ethical Google, even when this is less profitable or convenient.
After five years as a high performer in YouTube Marketing (and almost twelve at Google), two months after the Walkout, I was told that I would be demoted, that I'd lose half my reports, and that a project that was approved was no longer on the table. I escalated to HR and to my VP, which made things significantly worse. My manager started ignoring me, my work was given to other people, and I was told to go on medical leave, even though I'm not sick. Only after I hired a lawyer and had her contact Google did management conduct an investigation and walked back my demotion, at least on paper. While my work has been restored, the environment remains hostile and I consider quitting nearly every day.
Our stories aren't the only ones. Google has a culture of retaliation, which too often works to silence women, people of colour and gender minorities. Retaliation isn't always obvious. It's often confusing and drawn out, consisting of icy conversations, gaslighting, project cancellations, transition rejections, or demotions. Behavior that tells someone the problem isn't that they stood up to the company, it's that they're not good enough and don't belong.
During the Walkout, we collected 350 stories. Reading them, a sad pattern emerges: People who stand up and report discrimination, abuse, and unethical conduct are punished, sidelined, and pushed out. Perpetrators often go unimpeded, or are even rewarded (Andy, Amit, "I reported, he got promoted").
By punishing those who resist discrimination, harassment, and unethical decision making. Google permits these behaviours. This harms people inside the company, and communities outside who bear the brunt of Google's bad choices. If we want to stop discrimination, harassment, and unethical decisionmaking, we need to end retaliation against the people who speak honestly about these problems.
We need to push back. Here are some next steps:
1. We will be hosting a Retaliation Town Hall to share our stories and strategize. When: Friday, April 26, 11am PT/2pm ET. Add the event to your calendar here. [The message included an internal link to a livestream of the meeting.]
2. If you've been retaliated against, please share your story. (If you shared your story with the Walkout form, feel free to reshare and help keep everything in one place.) The more we share with each other, the easier it will be to push back. Add yours.