Google 'Systematically Retaliated' Against Employees 

Hundreds of Google employees convened on Friday to discuss corporate retaliation against those who criticize the company, according to Bloomberg

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

According to recent internal surveys, employees have had a dramatic drop in faith in Google's leadership, while the company's work on controversial programs for both the US military and China sparked notable backlashes - including employees refusing to work on said projects, and others who have flat-out resigned in protest

After employees staged a November walkout over the controversial contracts and a New York Times report that the company paid a $90 million exit package to Android mobile software creator, Andy Rubin, who forced a woman to give him a blowjob in a hotel room in 2013 - the organizers of the walkout, Meredeth Whittaker and Claire Stapleton, said that Google had punished them for their activism. 

The two asked staffers to join them on Friday to discuss the company’s alleged actions, and during the meeting they shared more than a dozen other stories of internal retribution that they had collected over the past week. Like many meetings at Google, participants could watch via a video live-stream and submit questions and comments.

"Now more than ever we need to reject retaliation, and reject the culture of fear and silence that retaliation creates," read an email from the event organizers, which Bloomberg News viewed. "The stakes are too high." -Bloomberg

"We prohibit retaliation in the workplace and publicly share our very clear policy," Google told Bloomberg in a statement. "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 is a researcher at Google specializing in artificial intelligence. She co-founded a research group, AI Now, that is affiliated with New York University. Whittaker wrote to her colleagues in an email that she was told she would have to "abandon my work on AI ethics."

Stapleton, who works in the marketing department at YouTube, alleged that she was informed she was being demoted and later told to take a medical leave she didn’t need. After she retained a lawyer, Stapleton said, the company "walked back my demotion, at least on paper," but "the environment remains hostile and I consider quitting nearly every day."

Stapleton told Bloomberg that she arranged a meeting with Google HR after flagging changes to her job, and was told to go on sick leave. When she replied that she wasn't sick, the HR director said "We put people on it all the time."

Whittaker and Stapleton shared more with colleagues in a Friday internal post. According to Whittaker, her manager told her that her AI ethics work "was no longer a fit," as Google's cloud division had plans to boost sales considerably by "being everywhere Lockheed is." 

When she sought a transfer to a different Google AI team - a move supported by the company's head of AI, Jeff Dean, Whittaker found herself involved in another protest - this time a petition against Kay Coles James to an AI ethics counsel organized by Google - Whitaker said her planned transfer was canceled and that her role at Google would be changing

"Continuing my work at AI Now and my work in AI ethics was not on the table," she wrote. 

Oona King, Google’s director of diversity strategy, rejected at least one of the employee’s claims. "I can genuinely say when I’ve looked at the details of one of the cases, it isn’t as it appears here," she wrote, according to a message viewed by Bloomberg News.

Executives at YouTube and Google Cloud sent messages to staffers earlier this week disputing the accounts of Stapleton and Whittaker, according to a person who had seen them.

Several current and former employees took to Twitter on Friday to register complaints using the hashtag #NotOkGoogle, a riff on the company’s virtual assistant product. "This is just the tip of the iceberg," wrote Alex Hanna, a member of Google’s cloud division. -Bloomberg

Former engineer Liz Fong-Jones, an outspoken Google critic who left the company earlier this year, tweeted on Friday "I am grateful that I quit Google and am now at a company where I'm respected as a peer, where I have the ability to influence the culture of the company, an where I'm fairly compensated in accordance with my value."

"This is a pattern, these are systemic issues, and we will change if only by speaking up and acting together," wrote Stapleton in the internal email.