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How tech workers are fueling a new employee activism movement

Google CEO Sundar Pichai appears before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

It was a busy fall for Google workers speaking out against their employer.

On Nov. 27, a group of full-time employees and contractors were campaigning to extend new policy changes for handling sexual harassment allegations to temporary and contract workers, according to a Bloomberg report. The same day, workers made public a petition protesting exploratory plans to build a search engine that complies with China’s online censorship regime.

Earlier in the month, 20,000 Google workers walked off the job worldwide in a widely watched protest over how the company handles sexual misconduct claims, following a bombshell New York Times story about Google’s management of past allegations. The walkout was repeatedly called a “watershed moment,” one that was said to represent a significant development in the labor-employer relationship and a new pressure point for tech giants facing a world increasingly distrusting of their businesses.

What’s different about the efforts of these employees -- along with those at other firms -- is that they’re not merely pushing for traditional labor issues, such as higher wages or better benefits. Instead, some are publicly questioning their employers' business decisions, opposing government contracts or bringing up broader moral questions about workplace policies, such as the inclusion of contract workers in an increasingly gig economy and the ethical implications of paying executives millions of dollars following allegations of sexual misconduct.

“It’s increasingly feasible for employees to lead social movements within their organization,” said Jerry Davis, an associate dean at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and the co-author of a book called “Changing Your Company from the Inside Out: A Guide for Social Intrapreneurs.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the tech industry. Those companies, Davis said, don’t own the same kind of tangible assets that those in other industries do.

“If they can’t recruit and retain people that have the rare skills they need, they’re kind of screwed,” he said, giving tech workers power that, even in a tight labor market with low unemployment, is rare.

Besides Google, employees at tech giants like Amazon and Microsoft have posted letters on Medium or signed internal petitions about companies' government-related work or questioning how their technologies are being used.

This week, Salesforce announced a “chief ethical and humane use officer” whose job will be “to develop a strategic framework for the ethical and humane use of technology across Salesforce”, according to a news release. Back in June, more than 650 Salesforce employees signed a petition over the software company’s contracts with the U.S. Customers and Border Protection Agency, according to a Bloomberg report; Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has also been critical of Facebook’s addictive qualities, comparing the social media giant to cigarettes.

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The nature of the tech labor market may help explain why workers feel more empowered to criticize their employers, said Peter Cappelli, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“Tech workers feel they are special, in part because they are so in demand, in part because their employers treat them that way,” he said in an email. “They also feel that some of their identity is tied up with the image of the company where they work, so it really does hurt them when that image gets tarnished.”

That identity issue may be a reason more workers feel compelled to speak out, management experts said. Employees -- and particularly younger ones -- want their employers to do more to contribute to society, and that expectation is on the rise. A recent survey of 1,000 workers by MetLife, for instance, found that 52 percent expect employers to help solve societal issues even if they are not central to the company’s business, up from 41 percent a year ago. Seventy percent said companies should work to address society’s challenges, up from 63 percent last year.

Indeed, many employers -- tech companies not least among them -- have written mission statements or value creeds that try to weave a broader purpose into their companies' reason for being, such as Facebook’s “bringing the world closer together."

But while that may help encourage workers to care more about their work, it can also generate higher expectations.

“What’s happening is employees are taking these values relatively seriously,” said Aaron Chatterji, a professor at Duke University who studies corporate activism on social and political issues. “When these mission statements were designed, I don’t think they were necessarily thinking of employees using that to enact social change. They were using them to motivate people to work harder.”

But at companies that have been vocal about those missions, and touted the transparency of the way they run their businesses, it has the potential to create a sort of “frankenculture,” Chatterji said, or problems of their own making. “All the efforts they’ve made to give people a sense of purpose, and the tools for collaboration they’ve built, can now be turned against the organization or turned to a different purpose,” he said.

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A Google spokeswoman pointed to statements CEO Sundar Pichai has made about the search giant’s culture and recent employee activism. On the same day as the walkout, Pichai spoke at a New York Times conference and said “there’s anger and frustration within the company. We all feel it. I feel it, too. At Google, we set a very, very high bar, and we clearly didn’t live up to our expectations.”

Yet while Google may be a company that has “given employees a lot of voice,” he said, “we don’t run the company by referendum.”

Though Google may be “a company about freedom of expression, and information” -- giving workers many internal forums and outlets for expression -- “that’s not how everything works. There are decisions we make which they may not agree with.”

(During his testimony on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Pichai said in response to a question about a China search engine that “right now, we have no plans to launch in China.")

Others said that while tech employees' skills may be in demand, leading them to feel more empowered, workers also believe some of the issues they’re working on are more broadly structural. Yana Calou, an engagement and training manager at who supports tech workers' campaigns, said there’s been a rise in the number of complaints from workers about their employers' business decisions, rather than just campaigns directed at working conditions.

“This idea that you can just quit a job and go somewhere else” and avoid sexual harassment, discrimination or a lack of diversity won’t necessarily solve the problem, said Calou. “These problems are systemic across our culture.”

Another reason tech workers may be speaking out more than employees in other industries is that the actual work of artificial intelligence systems or data storage can be inherently more controversial than what other companies are building, said Davis, particularly at a time when more and more concerns are being raised over the weaponization of technology in elections and the privacy of users' data.

“That’s not like selling flavored Pringles,” he said. The work of some tech companies, he noted, is “intrinsically political.”

That’s one reason Chatterji doesn’t see such activism spreading widely.

“These workers have a lot of leverage," he said. "The economy’s good. They’re highly skilled and in demand. It’s different for people who work at these companies. It gives them a lot more leeway.”

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