Google employees demonstrated outside the company's San Francisco office Friday to protest the internet giant's recent decision to put two staff members on leave. The event is the latest sign of a growing rift between management and rank-and-file workers at Alphabet's Google, which was once praised for its open corporate culture. Protesting staff believe the company is trying to quell internal activism and quash dissension about Google's work with the military and other potentially controversial customers.
Roughly 200 workers gathered about 11am local time Friday outside a Google office overlooking San Francisco bay.
"Over the past two years, many of my coworkers have asked the company to take meaningful action to curtail sexual harassment and systemic racism, improve the working conditions of temps, vendors and contractors, and divest from harmful tech," said Zora Tung, a Google software engineer. "Instead of listening to us, the company has chosen to silence us."
The Google workers who protested also said the company had unjustly put Laurence Berland and Rebecca Rivers on indefinite administrative leave without warning. They demanded that Google bring the employees back to work immediately.
Earlier this month, Bloomberg News reported that Google had put two workers on leave, which a spokeswoman said was for allegedly violating company policies. In an email, the Google protesters said neither Berland nor Rivers was given an explanation for their punishment. Rivers was involved in internal protests against US Customs and Border Protection, which is currently testing a Google cloud product. Berland was active in protests against YouTube for its handling of hate speech policies.
"It's a brute force intimidation attempt to silence workers," the employees said in an email.
Rivers said that Google's official reason for putting her on leave was to investigate her document access at the company to ensure "everything's on the up and up."
"However, many of the questions during this interrogation focused on my involvement in the Customs and Border Protection petition and social media usage," Rivers said. "I helped my coworkers learn about and act on Google's collaboration with CBP. Many of my coworkers are immigrants and this directly affects their lives and communities."
Berland said Google punished him for his involvement in protests against YouTube and for demanding, with other colleagues, that Google not work with the CBP.
"Even though Rebecca and I are experiencing the full force of Google's retaliation, this is not really about me. It's not about Rebecca. It's about us, all of us, and the open culture we built and treasure together," Berland said. "If they can do this to me, they can do this to anyone, and that culture is lost forever."
A company spokeswoman said Google is investigating the access of confidential documents and other information that made some employees feel unsafe.
"We have clear guidelines about appropriate conduct at work, and we've had a number of concerns raised," the spokeswoman said. "We always investigate such issues thoroughly."
In the last 18 months or so, a divide has grown between Google's leaders and outspoken staff. Employees have protested leadership's handling of sexual harassment complaints and launched internal campaigns against some Google projects, such as a censored search engine for China, a military contract and Google's cloud deals with energy companies. These areas were seen as potential sources of revenue growth for Google.
More recently, some workers accused managers of attempting to censor internal discussions and shut down meetings about labour rights. At least some of the tensions stem from new community guidelines Google introduced in August that were intended to curb incivility in the workplace.
Last week, Google scrapped its weekly all-hands staff meeting in favour of a monthly gathering that will focus on business and strategy topics.
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