Zach Siegel, a software engineer, delivered a rousing speech, assailing Google for spying on its workers and intimidating them. “We can’t hide anything from Google,” he said.
Google said last week that one of the employees was put on leave while an investigations team looked into why that person allegedly searched through a range of confidential documents, even after warnings not to do so. Google said the other employee is on leave for reviewing other employees’ online calendars, particularly members of the human resources and internal communications teams.
Organizers of the rally identified the employees as Laurence Berland, based in San Francisco, and Rebecca Rivers, who works in Google’s office in Boulder, Colo. Google had not named either worker.
“They want to intimidate everyone who disagrees with leadership,” said Berland, addressing the crowd in a courtyard outside Google’s offices. “They want us silent.”
The rally lasted nearly an hour, with speeches from Berland and Rivers, as well as other organizers.
The protest is the latest escalation of employee pushback over policies, products and personnel matters. Google, employees allege, has been scaling back disclosure from the top while also monitoring internal forums popular as havens for freewheeling discussions. Last week, it limited its long-running weekly all-hands meeting, known as TGIF, to once a month and said executives would no longer field questions related to culture or other internal matters.
At one of Google’s TGIF meetings in October, chief executive Sundar Pichai said the company was struggling with transparency among its workers, particularly as the workforce has swelled to more than 100,000 people. “We are genuinely struggling with some issues — transparency at scale,” he said, according to video of the meeting reviewed by The Washington Post.
Pichai and others pointed to leaks to the press as a particular sticking point. “I think we need to figure out how to make this work better so we can actually drive the open culture we have,” he said at the all-hands meeting. “That needs to come with some balance — you’ve clearly seen the amount of leaks we are seeing.”
Earlier this month, Kent Walker, Google’s top attorney, reminded employees of the company’s policy around reviewing internal documents. The point, workers said, was to chill discussion among employees, a hallmark of the company’s culture.
Google over the summer issued an internal memo instructing employees to keep conversations at the office limited to their work and to eschew potentially controversial topics such as politics. The company at the time said the new guidelines were the result of “a year of increased incivility on our internal platforms.”
Berland said Google was conducting a “coordinated effort to track us,” and, like others at the rally, said the tech giant was trying to suppress employee dissent, including by scaling back the all-hands meetings and monitoring worker actions. He said he is on indefinite leave.
“My account was deactivated while I was working,” he said.
The workers have been suspended while Google investigates their actions, the company said. “We have clear guidelines about appropriate conduct at work, and we’ve had a number of concerns raised,” said Jenn Kaiser, a Google spokeswoman. “We always investigate such issues thoroughly.”
Rivers said she was told she was suspended because she had accessed documents outside the scope of her job, but “many of the questions during this interrogation focused on my involvement in a Customs and Border Protection petition and social media usage outside of work.” Both Rivers and Berland said they were questioned for several hours by internal review teams at Google. Both denied they had leaked any information to the press.
Google has struggled to keep private information internally, including reports of its work to create software that could be used in China, Defense Department contracts, payouts to executives accused of sexual harassment and the content of internal meetings.
Google took new heat this week for consulting with IRI Consultants, which claims to help corporations combat unionizing efforts. The New York Times first reported on the work between IRI and Google.
The mention of IRI drew boos from the crowd during the rally, and speakers noted that some contract workers had successfully unionized in Pittsburgh. IRI did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
A little more than a year ago, Google workers walked off the job in locations worldwide to protest the alleged payouts to executives accused of sexual harassment.