Companies in Silicon Valley are wonderfully fond of describing themselves as “mission-driven.” Palantir has raised nearly $2 billion “working for the common good” and “doing what’s right.” At Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes promised “actionable information at the time it matters.” And for the past four years, Google and Facebook have occupied top spots on Business Insider’s annual list of the “Best Places to Work,” not merely because they dispense such perks as free laundry and subsidized dental care, but also because they claim to offer their workers the chance to be part of a meaningful project of global scope.
In that sense, mission statements are as much directed internally, at employees, as they are externally, at the public. The hours may be long and the competition fierce, the implicit message goes, but it’s worth it because the reward is spiritual as well as tangible. At some tech companies, faith in the mission is encouraged to the point that it resembles religious belief. Employees are invited to see themselves as proselytizers for the transformation of society, spreading the ideas of a company and its leaders around the world.
What happens, though, when the mission doesn’t accord with the behavior of a company or the values of its employees? For many, it has become increasingly impossible to believe that tech firms are working disinterestedly in service of some larger social good. Employees at Google have staged walkouts to protest sexual harassment and petitioned the company to halt its plans to develop a search engine that supports Chinese government censorship. Workers at both Google and Microsoft spoke out against providing cloud services for the Department of Defense, and Amazon employees posted an internal letter protesting how Amazon Web Services provides facial recognition technology to police.
These debates often pivoted around the companies’ mission statements. At Amazon, one organizer wrote, “Selling this system runs counter to Amazon’s stated values. We tout ourselves as a customer-centric company, and [chief executive Jeff] Bezos has directly spoken out against unethical government policies that target immigrants, like the Muslim ban. We cannot profit from a subset of powerful customers at the expense of our communities.”