Google Workers Lost a Leader, But the Fight Will Continue

By Liz Fong-Jones

I quit Google this January. It was a bittersweet moment — I joined 11 years ago as a college dropout and ultimately emerged as a prominent figure in the field of Site Reliability Engineering. My work had impact, I liked my team, and Google had given me so much over my career. But I couldn’t continue working there.

I have grave concerns about how strategic decisions are made at Google today, and who is missing a seat at the bargaining table. Google bears the responsibility of being one of the most influential companies in the world, but it has misused its power to place profits above the well-being of people. Executives seem to have forgotten the ethos of the company’s earliest employees — “don’t be evil” — and ethical stances, such as pulling out of China over censorship concerns in 2010, have been supplanted by shadowy efforts to appease the country’s government at the expense of human rights.

The approaches that I used during my time at Google to advocate for vulnerable people, including women, people of color, and LGBT+ people, have become less effective as leadership repeatedly stonewalls employees who privately raise concerns. Google will need to fundamentally change how it is run in order to win back the trust of workers and prevent a catastrophic loss of long-tenured employees, especially those from vulnerable groups.

I first raised my voice on behalf of users in January 2010, less than two years into my run at the company. I’d taken to heart the Google handbooks containing phrases such as “focus on the user, and all else will follow,” and “don’t be evil; if you see something that you think isn’t right — speak up!”

I, along with many peers, predicted that without significant product changes, the launch of Google+ would be a disaster for vulnerable users. The new social network was set to mirror Facebook’s real-name policy, which insists people use their legal names on the platform. In doing so, Google+ would create yet another space inaccessible to some teachers, therapists, LGBT+ people, and others who need to use a different identity for privacy and safety. As a transgender person, I knew all too painfully that being forced to use a legal name different from my authentic identity resulted in harassment and feelings of dysphoria.

Nothing changed overnight, but a group of employees did win a seat at the negotiating table, where they could better articulate their positions to management.

I started writing down the list of reasons why the policy decision was misguided and would encourage, rather than stem, abuse. In keeping with Google’s spirit of “putting the user first,” hundreds of my colleagues joined me in expanding upon the list, and thousands more attached their signatures to a petition calling upon Vic Gundotra, then vice-president of Google+, to change the policy.

Nothing changed overnight, but a group of employees did win a seat at the negotiating table, where they could better articulate their positions to management. Still, Google+ eventually launched in mid-2011 with a real-name policy. Once the “#nymwars” exploded and our predictions came true, the executives who had initially denied our suggestions sought our feedback on an experiment to allow “stable” pseudonyms on the service in early 2012. Two years later, full removal of all naming restrictions followed.

This pattern repeated itself several times during my time at Google: Management would overstep, rank and file workers would point out how to avoid harm to users, and we’d have a constructive internal dialogue about how to proceed. We became more effective with practice and began heading off issues with early feedback or systematic changes to discourage unethical “growth hacking.” Yet, I was never promoted or rewarded in my first-shift job for my second-shift organizing work. And, in the last two years, troubling trends threatened to reverse the progress my peers and I had made.

The first such issue was an escalation of harassment, doxxing, and hate speech targeted at marginalized employees within Google’s internal communications. It began as concern trolling and rapidly escalated to leaks of the names, photos, and posts of LGBT+ employees to white supremacist sites. Management silently tolerated it for fear of being labeled as partisan. Employees attempted to internally raise concerns about this harassment through official channels, only to be ignored, stonewalled, or even punished for doing so.

Google can only build the best products for users if its base of employees is truly diverse and management listens to their feedback. Failure to do so creates collateral damage among users when product launches trigger issues that could have been caught earlier in development — as occurred with the Google+ rollout. Users are not guinea pigs, and missteps with regard to privacy and human rights cannot be undone. With vulnerable employees feeling unsafe to exist at work, let alone raise concerns about products, we felt we had no other choice but to speak to the media for the first time last year and highlight Google management’s refusal to identify and discipline the employees behind the harassment.

The second issue was an increasing willingness to compromise on ethics for profit. The behavior we’d seen — and resisted — around Google+ was no longer an anomaly, but instead the norm among executives. The company blew past previous ethical redlines, including suppressing the Privacy and Security team’s review process in its rush to return to China and neglecting to implement an ethics review process for government contracts that would automate surveillance and targeting of civilians in the Middle East.

Worst of all, instead of having an upfront discussion with employees, executives attempted to hide both projects from them. Those who were allowed behind the firewall were threatened with termination if they blew the whistle, even internally. Yonatan Zunger, who was my negotiating partner on the management side for many crises, resigned from Google shortly after he was asked to sign off on a censored version of the search engine for the Chinese market.

But the event that utterly shattered employees’ trust and goodwill in management was the New York Times’ reporting on a $90 million payout to Andy Rubin in the wake of his sexual harassment of a subordinate. Employees had been complaining about pay inequity, mistreatment of contractors, and other forms of discrimination for years. To see how the company handled an executive harassment case revealed the utter lack of scruples among management. Employees walked out en masse, holding signs reading: “I reported, he got promoted,” and “Will leave for $90M, no harassment needed.” More than 20 percent of full-time employees joined the protest along with a large number of contractors who faced even greater risks of retaliation from their superiors. Many employees realized for the first time that they weren’t alone — and that their co-workers had their back.

Those who were allowed behind the firewall were threatened with termination if they blew the whistle, even internally.

Despite the massive show of solidarity from workers, Google management failed to meaningfully address the demands, least of all the structural demand, for an employee representative on the board. Shareholder lawsuits, filed in 2019, allege that the payout was not simply a cover-up of Rubin’s own conduct, but intended by the board to suppress information about the misconduct of even more executives. Shortly after the walkout in November 2018, Google even filed a motion before the National Labor Relations Board asking to overturn a previous ruling that allowed workers to organize on company email and document systems, as Google’s did.

It is time for real change. I can no longer bail out a raft with a teaspoon while those steering punch holes in it. Investors are now demanding changes to Google’s governance, such as evaluation of executives on inclusion metrics and rigorous analysis of human rights impacts of Google’s work in China. I, and other workers, very much support these proposals, which would address human capital risks, create meaningful governance, and improve long-term shareholder value. We hope to see further proposals that support worker voices and human rights.

However, I can’t continue burning myself out pushing for change. Instead, I am putting my own health first by joining a workplace that has a more diverse and fair working environment and a firm commitment to ethical computing shared by workers and management. I intend to devote the rest of my career toward creating a more just world rather than exacerbating inequalities. Although I have left Google, I remain fiercely loyal to its employees who have committed themselves to advocating for equitable treatment of their colleagues and building ethical products. The Google walkout demonstrated that not just thousands, but tens of thousands of my colleagues share concerns about Google’s governance.

Part of what enabled me to be so vocal in the face of potential retaliation was having sufficient financial reserves, an unconditional right to remain in my country of residence, and the support of my partner’s income and health insurance. To empower those who fear retaliation the most, such as contractors and H-1B workers, I am contributing my final $100,000 payout from Google to support Google workers and contractors who may face reprisals for their future organizing. Other workers have pledged a further $150,000, and Coworker.org and I are working to establish the structure and governance mechanisms to administer this fund for worker activists.

It is a central theme of Site Reliability Engineering to avoid individual heroism and focus on building sustainable support structures. What began with me has become a much larger movement with the help of groups such as Coworker.org and the Tech Workers Coalition, which helped us learn about our rights and grow other leaders within our company and the broader sector.

There are now dozens of labor organizers at Google encouraging workers to share their concerns and experiences, spread across the company’s offices worldwide. Their tactics must evolve from those I initially advocated and practiced, and I support their decisions to organize however best suits their current context.

The labor movement at Google is larger and stronger than ever, and it will continue to advance human rights and the right to a safe and fair workplace regardless of whether management supports them.