Note: This article now includes stories of various other Google employees about the retaliation they faced, which they have shared with Google Walkout for real change.
Last week, two Google Walkout organizers accused the company of retaliation against them over last year’s Google Walkout protest. The two Google employees, Claire Stapleton, YouTube Marketing Manager and Meredith Whittaker, head of Google’s Open Research were told their roles would change dramatically including calls to abandon AI ethics work, demotion, and more.
In regards to this, both women hosted a Retaliation Town Hall to share their stories and strategize this Friday. The event was also live-streamed to other Google offices. 350+ Google staffers attended the Town Hall, where Stapleton said, that after her public sharing of retaliation earlier this week, Google executives tried to undermine her “in emails this week to thousands of my friends and colleagues”. In those emails, Google executives challenged Stapleton’s claim saying that she was “never demoted”. “What’s true is that there was a demotion, and after my lawyers got involved, it was reversed,” Stapleton wrote, in a statement viewed by Wired.
Whittaker also provided further updates on the retaliation she faced. She said that her manager told her in late December she would likely need to leave Google’s Cloud division. The same manager told her in March that the “Cloud division was seeking more revenue and that AI Now and her AI ethics work was no longer a fit. This was a strange request because the Cloud unit has a team working on ethical concerns related to AI.”
During the March meeting, Whittaker claims her manager also told her that there are “two kinds of people at Google…those who quit, and those who stay and hate every minute of it and try to destroy it. I was taken aback, since my work has always aimed to ensure that Google lived up to its purported values and treated its workforce, and the rest of the world, with respect.”
Recently, Google dissolved it’s AI ethics council after nearly 2,600 employees, including Whittaker, signed a petition against the appointment of Kay Cole James, president of the Heritage Foundation. Employees were upset by James’ anti-trans and anti-immigrant political statements. Whittaker also signed the petition protesting Google’s infamous Project Dragonfly, the secretive search engine that Google is allegedly developing which will comply with the Chinese rules of censorship.
Meredith Whittaker was also a leader in the anti-Maven movement. Google’s Project Maven, was focused on analyzing drone footage and could have been eventually used to improve drone strikes on the battlefield. More than 3,000 Google employees signed a petition against this project that led to Google deciding not to renew its contract with the U.S. Department of Defense in 2019.
In her statement on Friday, Whittaker says that on April 1, a few days before the petition was drafted, she got approval from Jeff Dean to transfer from Cloud to Google’s Research and Machine Intelligence group. Two weeks after the petition was sent, Whittaker claims her transfer was killed.
Other Google employees also spoke about employee discontent at Google ranging from the ethics of performing work for the US Department of Defense to the handling of sexual harassment claims.
Following the statements of Whittaker and Stapleton in the town hall session, several current and former Googlers took to Twitter to register complaints and share their experiences of facing retaliation from the company. They expressed their disagreement with Google’s policies with the hashtag #NotOkGoogle which was trending on Friday.
— Meredith Whittaker (@mer__edith) April 26, 2019
“This does not seem to be an isolated incident”, Vanessa Harris, Google Product Manager
— Vanessa Harris 🐾 (@technologypoet) April 27, 2019
“I am grateful that I quit Google”, Liz Fong-Jones, ex-Googler, current SRE Dev Advocate @honeycombio
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, and where I'm fairly compensated in accordance with my value.
What Google has been doing to its employees is #NotOkGoogle.
— Liz Fong-Jones (方禮真) (@lizthegrey) April 26, 2019
She also talked about Google’s retaliation against her which forced her to quit.
I, too, was retaliated against. The company forced me out early when I announced my exit, despite the fact that there was no policy requiring it, and plenty of others had been allowed to stay until their last day.
HR blamed my mgmt chain, and my mgmt chain blamed HR. https://t.co/5OuidYXde0
— Liz Fong-Jones (方禮真) (@lizthegrey) April 22, 2019
“This is just the tip of the iceberg”, Dr. Alex Hanna, a computational social scientist at Google Cloud
Hearing stories of retaliation makes it clear that the experience of @mer__edith and @clairewaves is not atypical at Google. This is just the tip of the iceberg as the company takes action at many people opposing sexism, sexual violence, transphobia, and militarism #NotOkGoogle
— Dr. Alex Hanna (@alexhanna) April 26, 2019
Mila Hardt from Google Health division
Hey @sundarpichai when you promised changes after the walkout I was not expecting:
Restricting ways in which employees can organize https://t.co/JdM9Eo4u54
— Mila Hardt (@Mi_Mo) April 26, 2019
“I emailed @EileenTNaughton later again in November, just after the town hall meeting and her promises for change. I pledged her again to help stop the planned disposal of me. This time she never responded! My last day was after Thanks Giving! Thanks, Google for the gift!”, Vida Vakilotojar, Xoogler
I emailed @EileenTNaughton later again in November, just after the town hall meeting and her promises for change. I pledged her again to help stop to the planned disposal of me. This time she never responded! My last day was after Thanks Giving! Thanks Google for the gift!
— Vida Vakilotojar (@VidaVakil) April 27, 2019
The town hall group also published an internal document with a new set of “demands”. The document which was seen by The Guardian includes a “transparent, open investigation of HR and its abysmal handling of employee complaints relating to working conditions, discrimination, harassment, and retaliation”. Other demands include a public response from Google co-founder Larry Page, and that Google meets the demands that were issued in the Google 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.”
Google did not respond to specific questions about the town hall’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.”
Other activist and worker groups also rose in solidarity.
Join in. 👇 https://t.co/84NwRYQinL
— TIME'S UP (@TIMESUPNOW) April 26, 2019
“The impact @mer__edith has in AI ethics is second to none. What happens to her at Google will be a gauge for the wellbeing of the entire field. Watch closely.”, Moritz Hardt, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Berkeley University
The impact @mer__edith has in AI ethics is second to none. What happens to her at Google will be a gauge for the wellbeing of the entire field. Watch closely.
— Moritz Hardt (@mrtz) April 24, 2019
Update: Yesterday, Google Walkout for real change published a blog post on medium sharing stories of retaliation from various other Google employees.
“When I reported something unethical happening at Google, Employee Relations fudged data to protect Google.”
“Retaliated against for defending a mother who reports to me. HR dismissed it as “poor behavior”
“I reported my tech lead to my manager for sexual harassment, but my manager thought I was ‘overreacting’ ”
“My first two years at Google I was not promoted due to bias. While my peer was promoted with the same ratings and same tenure, I was not. When I asked my manager about this I was told that I was being an “emotional woman.”
How is this happening at Google? Clearly this pattern should not be allowed to continue.