Political tension at Google is only getting worse

Google has had a challenging year. The company is already beleaguered by external scrutiny and criticism from politicians and the public over how it moderates content on its platforms. It’s facing an antitrust probe. And at the same time, it’s struggling internally to deal with rising tensions with both its liberal and conservative employees.

On Thursday in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, a former Google engineer, Kevin Cernekee, accused Google of firing him for expressing his conservative political beliefs at work and claimed the company fosters a culture of politically biased bullying. While Google said it fired him for misusing company equipment, Cernekee’s claims have provided new fodder for conservative commentators and Republican legislators who have long made unsupported accusations that Google and other tech giants are liberal havens that discriminate against conservative ideology.

Cernekee’s accusations have also reignited a debate among Google’s workforce over freedom of speech that began in 2017, when the company fired former engineer James Damore for publishing a memo arguing that women were less biologically suited than men to work in tech. Some of its liberal employees who were involved in organizing walkout protests last year accuse the company of retaliating against them for publicly demanding more ethical policies at work. Others are in line with Cernekee and are legally challenging the company over claims that it suppresses their speech and displays a bias against conservative workers.

“We enforce our workplace policies without regard to political viewpoint. Lively debate is a hallmark of Google’s workplace culture; harassment, discrimination, and the unauthorized access and theft of confidential company information is not,” a Google spokesperson told Recode in response to Cernekee’s claims.

There is no evidence that Google, Facebook, or any other major tech company is biased against conservative employees or conservative content. While it is true that most tech employees lean liberal in their personal beliefs, that doesn’t mean that their employers discriminate in the workplace, or in the products they build and maintain.

Nevertheless, two years after the Damore memo and nine months after the walkouts, it’s clear Google’s problem around internal political dissent is only getting worse. It’s a big liability that’s fueling attacks from conservative politicians and even liberal ones, and it’s allowing them to advance their claims without any factual support.

How Google got here

Two years ago, Google faced a significant test on the limits of what speech the famously open company would tolerate within its rank and file. James Damore, a then-Google software engineer, posted a 10-page internal “anti-diversity” memo on an internal mailing list. In it, he criticized the company for trying to reverse the gender gap in tech — arguing instead that it should accept that women are biologically less capable of successfully working in the tech industry than men (a conclusion that has been disputed by the same scientists he cited in the memo).

After the memo leaked and provoked an onslaught of internal and public criticism, the company fired Damore for violating the company’s code of conduct. CEO Sundar Pichai said at the time that to suggest that a group of workers “have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”

Damore filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board and a class action lawsuit over his firing, but the NLRB dismissed his complaint and Damore moved his legal claim to private arbitration.

While the memo was widely criticized internally when it was published, some Google employees remained sympathetic to Damore, arguing that he didn’t deserve to be fired. As BuzzFeed News reported last month, some conservative Google employees continue to vent their frustrations about the company’s alleged anti-conservative bias on a third-party anonymous message board, Blind.

Republican politicians have been quick to jump on these reports, using them to justify their claims that internal biases also translate into Google’s products. These accusations are already having real consequences for Google.

Last month, President Donald Trump, who regularly refers to tech companies being biased against Republicans, advanced a conspiracy theory put forth by Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel on Fox News that Google was committing treason with the Chinese government; Trump threatened to investigate the company on the matter. And only a few weeks earlier, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) proposed a bill to rid Google, Facebook, and Twitter of supposed political bias. These are the kinds of challenges and regulatory threats that Google will only see more of in the years ahead — and so far, it hasn’t been able to effectively combat or stop these claims.

The other side of the spectrum

Other workers with radically different political beliefs from Damore have also accused Google of stifling political activity in the workplace.

In the past year, Google has struggled to deal with criticism from employees over how it handles sexual harassment claims, the company’s military contract with the US government, and its secretive work on a censored version of Google search for China.

Last November, after revelations that Google paid multi-million-dollar exit packages to executives being investigated for sexually harassing their subordinates, 20,000 employees across the world walked off the job in protest. It was a historic moment for the company and spurred several internal movements to push the company to reform its policies on forced arbitration and contract workers.

But less than a year later, four of the seven walkout organizers have left the company. Two of them, Meredith Whittaker and Claire Stapleton, have accused Google of retaliating against them for their internal activism. Several other employees, in previous interviews with Recode, have said they left the company in large part because they felt Google has not been responsive enough to concerns raised in the walkout and other protests.

Most of these employees openly espouse progressive beliefs that are far removed from the politics of former colleagues like Damore and Cernekee. They would probably not want to have their political struggles lumped in the same category as conservative employees who have blamed their firings on politics.

Regardless, both groups present two sides of the same challenge to Google’s management: how to deal with an increasingly vocal and growing group of dissenters to the company’s cultural status quo.

How Google is responding

For one thing, Google is already starting to limit its open policy on employee speech and dissent at work.

According to multiple Google employees, the company has been holding fewer platforms for public discourse — specifically its once-weekly “TGIF” meetings, which are now held less frequently, closer to once a month, according to several employees. Googlers used to be able to ask management unplanned, ad-hoc questions at these meetings, but now they have to submit questions in advance that can get voted up or down.

Only the questions that receive the most upvotes get asked, and some employees have told Recode they think this voting system is unfair because controversial questions are easily downvoted. One employee said that the top 10 questions are usually about noncontroversial product or business initiatives, and that more critical questions often don’t make it to the top despite being important concerns.

Recordings of these TGIF meetings, which used to be available for employees to watch for up to three years, are now no longer available to watch after three weeks.

Last year, Google rolled out a set of community guidelines to address what it viewed as an increase in uncivil interactions on its tens of thousands of internal mailing lists, according to the company. Google now also requires the owner of each internal mailing list group to moderate content posted in the group.

And as BuzzFeed News reported in May, management has also increased efforts to crack down on internal leakers, threatening to fire workers for so much as searching for internal information on projects that aren’t in their purview.

Google’s efforts to control its employees’ speech is a leviathan of a task for a company with nearly 100,000 global employees. No matter how many rules the company places on what Google workers can and can’t say, some employees are bound to break those rules. And as with the Damore and Cernekee cases, the company is vulnerable to accusations that it’s displaying political bias, particularly against conservative employees. It will remain up to the company to decide where it draws the line in policing the chatter of its internal public square, and how much outside political pressure shapes those standards.

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