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Google Walkout Organizers Say They're Facing Retaliation (wired.com)
333 points by longdefeat 30 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 245 comments



> Meredith Whittaker, who leads Google’s Open Research, said that after Google disbanded its external AI ethics council on April 4, she was told that her role would be “changed dramatically.” Whittaker said she was told that, in order to stay at the company, she would have to “abandon” her work on AI ethics and her role at AI Now Institute, a research center she cofounded at New York University.

I don't understand why a person who organized the pressure group that led to Google disbanding their AI ethics group would expect her role not to change, since she's involved in AI ethics, the very thing she helped sink. She helped make it politically toxic and a PR disaster for her own employer.

I'm no fan of Google, but they tried to organize something to satisfy a politically diverse group of stakeholders to at least have a discussion on this topic, only to have their efforts very publicly sabotaged by one of their own. Are they really obligated to continue to fund the work she's done to harm the company?


They didn't try to do that, though. They tried to organize a group of people who largely (although not exclusively) knew nothing about AI, or ethics, to rubber-stamp their actions and assuage the concerns of regulators & watchdogs. Ethics laundering, basically.


That's a really huge assumption, considering they never met (afaict), let alone deliberated anything or issued recommendations. Google sought input from outside their bubble and those inside the bubble immediately protested based on identity politics.

There are a lot more people outside the bubble than inside, and this action makes it seem like Google doesn't give a shit what they think. It's the sort of thing that makes heavy regulation appealing even for those who normally would oppose regulation on principle.

How does that benefit Google?


There was widespread protest from outside the bubble, too. You'll be unsurprised to learn the entire AI ethics space is being enthusiastically colonized by Thought Leaders all too happy to hold "discussions" in service of whatever their corporate funders desire. Oh sure there'll be some token pearl-clutching, but you can't stop progress (toward ubiquitous facial recognition) right?

Anyway, if you're interested in seeing all the ridiculous shenanigans these people try to pull I recommend following @farbandish on twitter.


I thought it was only 1 or 2 people out of 8 who were problematic; How is that "colonizing"? It also stills feels disingenuous to judge all 8 people's intent and position without them meeting a single time or making any deliberation.


> I thought it was only 1 or 2 people out of 8 who were problematic

I think ahelwer meant the AI ethics space in general, not just this panel.

As a researcher who has been working in ML and also software engineering ethics since long before "AI ethics" became a thing, I've definitely noticed a massive infusion of self-promoting "thought leaders" who have zero expertise in either of those things.

Most of those people are MBAs with little or no actual business experience and zero software knowledge (let alone ML or AI research experience). Their ethics background usually amounts to a few undergraduate philosophy courses that, ironically, failed to teach them the one thing that a philosophy course should teach: a modicum intellectual humility.

And yes, those folks tend to care mostly about their paychecks.


> There was widespread protest from outside the bubble, too

It seems implausible that anyone not in a bubble cares what happens to Google's 8-person no-actual-power ethics team. It could be composed of witches and warlocks who spend their days researching pentagrams and nobody should care. There are a lot of small, questionable teams in large companies.

It is only remotely newsworthy as evidence that Google culturally purges conservative voices. Even with that frame; it could just be a beat up. I'd define the bubble as people who were getting worked up over it; they are obviously culturally synchronized because there isn't an obvious rational link.


Actually I think you'll find quite a few people care about what the megacorps decide to do with AI and their approach to the ethics surrounding it, since it's currently a fantasy to hope for regulation by the US gov.


That is what someone should be protesting, isn't it?

Perhaps the easiest way to help the world avoid the potential problems created by the Google's work is not to work for Google?

These protesting employees, whatever the cause du jour, are all in a compromised position. They need/want their jobs at Google. They cannot effectively function as internal watchdogs and regulators. They are not representative of the wider affected population; we do not elect them.

Neither Google nor Facebook can be relied on to "regulate itself", whether it comes from top-down decision-making or in response to internal protests.


This should be the canary/coal mine for whether or not regular humans can have opinions that differ from the master class/billionaires. Even if you are a titan in the field of AI Ethics, google has no use for you if you disagree with the masters. Google will lose 2 unbelievable female scientists, who also have exhibited far more compassion and empathy then we can expect from googles AI in the future.


Yes they are. It's called "protected concerted activity" and it's protected under the national labor relations act.

These laws were passed because they were seen as better than the status quo, which was employers firebombing their employees or highering mecenaries to shoot them.


Google telling Whittaker that they don't want her doing work on AI ethics after she torpedoed their first effort to have a public discussion is not even close to firebombing her or hiring mercenaries to shoot her. Nor was she engaged in trying to form an employees' union, which I think is the activity protected by the NLRA.

They didn't even fire her. Apparently they just said, We don't want you involved in the AI ethics discussion going forward. That seems reasonable, considering her past efforts in that area have not benefited Google in any way, but rather harmed them.

Just as employers can't firebomb their employees for organizing, employees can't bury steel spikes in logs headed for the sawmill.


Did she "torpedo" their efforts, or merely point out that it was already holed below the waterline, by design?


> or merely point out that it was already holed below the waterline, by design?

That assumes some humility and objectiveness from her higher-ups. "Oh you publicly criticized our project, behind which some of us have staked our reputation. And you created a major negative PR event as well. Thank you for that! We finally see our mistake and we'll apologize and move on". In some hypothetical rational universe it might play out like that, but in reality I don't see how that was supposed to turn out without some repercussions for her.


It perhaps assumes a company which was actively and seriously interested in the area of AI ethics.


Ding ding ding!


You are commenting on different things. She pointed out the political oriented people on the ai committee who knew absolutely nothing about technology or ai. They were just prominent conservatives, who had no apparent reason to be there. Pointing out something like that is vastly different than saying you killed your own project. Pointing out what appear to be politically connected but otherwise useless people on leadership groups is a good thing I think.


I don't understand the argument that someone participating on an ethics panel has to be an expert on the tech. The more important thing is that they should be conversant with ethics.

The questions involved have to do with should we build this tech, not how to build this tech. To argue otherwise means that the vast majority of people should not be allowed to have opinions on the ethics of nuclear weapons, medical procedures, or any other topic where they are not subject matter experts.

AI tech and the ethics of using it is rightly a political topic, since it has the potential to affect everyone on the planet.

Preemptively saying that certain viewpoints have no place at the table simply means the political discussion will move from a friendlier environment within Google to the (likely more hostile to Google's interests) environment of general politics in the U.S. Personally I think that might be a better outcome, but from Google's standpoint it's potentially a disaster since it might result in heavy regulation of their business.


You don't have to be an expert, but imho you should be someone who has a grasp of technology, science and the world on a very focused technology issue. If you are someone who denies humans impact the earth's climate, if you argue in favor of people who think the world is only 8,000 years old, I don't trust you to make choices about science based policy.


The NLRA protects concerted action by employees regarding working conditions. Arguably, this could fall under that definition.


How is an outside ethics panel going to affect their working conditions? The people on the panel don't have any say on employees' pay, promotions, disciplinary actions, assignments, or anything else that might affect their working conditions.

The idea was to have some people from outside the company look at the tech and its potential hazards and provide some input on the ethics of developing and deploying it. People inside the company said, No, we don't want that particular viewpoint to be have a seat at the table on this outside committee. The ethics panel had nothing at all to do with their working conditions.


> the status quo, which was employers firebombing their employees or highering mecenaries to shoot them

Did we not, uh, already have laws against firebombing or hiring hitpersons? I would have thought these kinds of rights-to-collective-action laws are more about employers just summarily sacking people who do things that they're legally entitled to do but that are politically disadvantageous to their employers.


Whittaker organized a walkout to protest the way that allegations of sexual assault were mishandled. Is there evidence that she also organized the petition related to the external AI ethics group in Google?



Being asked to abandon a current role is way different than Google deciding to remove said positions. It's the same difference between leaving the company and being fired. Even though in both ways you're not in the company anymore, how it was done is an important factor. Google is basically asking the employee to resign instead of telling her that her position has been removed.


Because she is a prominent female scientist, and she’s proven to be mentally competent to handle this s-storm in an admirable way. It’s a horrible look.


If you do not know that this sort of thing is coming when you chose to stand up for what you think is right, you should.

Protest and civil disobedience come at an obligate personal cost. The only reasonable expectation you should have before doing it is that you're about to burn your world to the ground -- anything left standing you should count as a blessing and a relief.

In this case, for example, walkout organizers should've just assumed that they're going to be retaliated against, and that their protest didn't end the day of the walkout but will continue through the whole process of having a labor lawyer, fighting this in court, documenting their work lives for the next 5+ years, etc. It's part of the same action and part of the same protest.

In the long term and at a broader societal level, moral protests are usually worth it, but that does not mean that your shorter- and medium- term economic and personal social costs are going to be zero -- in fact, quite the opposite!

edit: i assume that the walkout organizers knew all this, but the above can totally be read as "oh those silly babes-in-the-woods googlers", which was not what i meant. If anything, I understand the linked post as just the next phase of the game, in which illegal retribution is disclosed as part of an ongoing legal fight.


Who's saying they didn't expect that. Expected or not you still fight that tooth and nail and that's exactly what they are doing here. The work is not done but it's important that they not only organize and unite with other workers who are affected but that they do exactly as they have with this article and get word out to people outside of the organization they are fighting. The public can be a powerful weapon


Yep tons of people in the comments asking why they didn't just quit.

Quitting isn't going to change a damn thing.


In this case, for example, walkout organizers should've just assumed that they're going to be retaliated against

Retaliation which isn't technically retaliation is just how crusty old Kafkaesque big companies have operated for years. I'll leave it up to the reader what this implies about Google.

In the long term and at a broader societal level, moral protests are usually worth it

Social media has created an environment where the bar is far too low for activism and protest, and unchecked opportunism in the name of activism is far too easy.

but that does not mean that your shorter- and medium- term economic and personal social costs are going to be zero -- in fact, quite the opposite!

Strange, but in 2019, there are quite a few people who have profited or otherwise have gained non-monetarily from online activism.


It's pretty absurd to think the authors didn't expect any kind of reprisal. No kind of organizing against an entity this size, especially with the visibility the walkout had, comes without a cost. And not reporting on the consequences would be handing over the victory to Google.


This retaliation in response to anti-harassment protests is actually illegal. It's pretty obvious these actions were done before legal got involved: When Claire Stapleton had a lawyer contact Google they walked back the demotion.


It feels like Google eventually started disciplining disobedient employees. I mean, can you imagine Goldman Sachs bankers organising a protest to express their dissatisfaction with certain decisions their upper management makes? They would be fired on spot. Now, Google has been facing employee revolt for the last couple of years (military projects, James Damore, China search engine), and Google kept allowing that to happen without any consequences. Now that changed, and it makes sense, because employees don't own the company, employees work for the company in exchange for compensation and don't really have to grounds to constantly blackmail the management just because they don't like the direction the company is going. You have to be delusional to think acting like that won't jeopardise your career... Besides if you need to involve a lawyer you are most certainly unwelcome there and should probably just quit (however, finding a new role might prove difficult given the circumstances. Which company would employ someone that organised a revolt against their leadership in their previous workplace and eventually ran crying to the media about retaliation instead of handling the situation quietly).


Good lord. What kind of terrible person thinks Goldman Sachs is some kind of role model?


For better or worse, a lot of people admire and respect success. Goldman Sachs is very successful, so unless it does something really bad, it will be respected by many.

I don't think you should refer to people as terrible just because they don't admire the same qualities that you do.


You do realize you’re talking about the same people who nearly took down the entire US banking system 10 years ago, right? The only thing they’ve been “successful” at recently is getting the government to bail them out of the mess they created.


I didn't say they made the world a better place. They weren't trying to.

They had one clear goal: make a lot of money for themselves. And they have, for many years, achieved this goal splendidly, through hard work, financial and business skills, reputation, innovation, connections, lies, market manipulation, government bailouts, etc.

This is considered success, and earns respect, in both Western and Eastern cultures. There are people who hate the way Goldman makes money, but they are not the majority even in the general population. For example, take a look at this: https://www.businessinsider.com/goldman-sachs-reputation-sco... or http://www.vault.com/company-rankings/banking/vault-banking-...


Country over party. Country over profit.

Only the unethical respect the unethical.


Where I come from, that’s considered sociopathic (and, yes, I know it applies to all corporations, not just GS or investment banks).


Do you mind if I ask you which country you're referring to?

Does it mean people in your country would hate for their kids to get a job at Goldman Sachs, organizations would hesitate to take Goldman Sachs donations, etc?


> I don't think you should refer to people as terrible just because they don't admire the same qualities that you do.

By your logic, you can admire all sorts of terrible people, like those who have committed murder, genocide, etc.

It is fine to judge people on a moral level if they are committing blatantly unethical acts. Being "successful" does not exclude one from being terrible.


The post I was responding to didn't call GS terrible; they called people who admire GS terrible. That's a lot more people than GS, and that is a very questionable claim.

To your point, I think maybe 99.9% of people agree that murderers are terrible.

The number of people who agree that Goldman Sachs is terrible is nowhere close to that. In fact, I suspect close to 25-50% actually admire them. I think it's wrong to call a quarter of the population "terrible" just because they don't agree with your definition of morality.


Well, they most likely did expect consequences. But regardless they need to make noise of it when it happens, else it would be a waste of attention.

This is just the way the world works. If you are opposed to something, you need to complain and make a buzz to get change over time. Even if in the moment it is both obvious and will make no difference.


Sorry, it's entirely unclear from my post, but i assume the authors DID expect this to happen.


Un-ironically there's an episode of SpongeBob that perfectly illustrates this. Where Squidward convinces SpongeBob to go on strike and once he's actually on strike is surprised and outraged when he realizes he's been fired.


After escalating the issue to human resources, she said she faced further retaliation. “My manager started ignoring me, my work was given to other people, and I was told to go on medical leave, even though I’m not sick,” Stapleton wrote. After she hired a lawyer; the company conducted an investigation and seemed to reverse her demotion.

For the sake of argument, let's postulate that this is exactly what it sounds like: straight up retaliation. If so, here's the question in my mind:

What flipping moron thought that:

a. this was a good idea

b. they could get away with this

TBH, I'd say that IF Google management were that upset at this individual's actions, it would have made more sense to just straight up fire her, as opposed to this kind of childishness. NOT that I'm saying any of this justifies firing. Just saying that outright firing somebody you disagree with makes more sense than keeping them around and trying to fuck with them as, whatever, punishment I guess? That's braindead stupid as far as I can see.

And actually, (a) is the more serious question in many ways. Seriously, what did they think they would gain from this retaliation? Who wins in this scenario? Nobody, as far as I can tell.


Firing would have been even more provably retaliation; presumably they were hoping to reduce legal liability. Why they thought this would work is beyond me, since this kind of activity is also recognized by labor law as Totally Illegal.

One possibility - the people with power to fire her actually talked to their lawyers, while the people with the power to initiate this kind of harassment did not.


Firing would have been even more provably retaliation; presumably they were hoping to reduce legal liability.

Yes, but in some ways it would have been more honest. But the real question, still, is why do either? How does retaliating against this individual benefit Google? (Not that it would be justified even IF the answer was "Their stock will go up 3x as a result" or something).

It's just dumb from what I can see. It's almost like some manager was butt-hurt that somebody expressed their opinion and decided to try and fuck them over for no real reason. That manager is the one who ought to be fired.


> It's almost like some manager was butt-hurt that somebody expressed their opinion and decided to try and fuck them over for no real reason.

Well, my second guess in my comment was that the person who consulted lawyers and decided against firing was not the same person as the idiot manager who decided on this harassment.


They might believe it would act as a visible deterrent to other employees. If employees at Google see activism go un-retaliated-against, then it may become so rampant that it actually does pose an existential threat to Google.

This way, even if she sues them and wins, it will scare a lot of other employees and make them second guess if they want to be put in a position to have to hire a lawyer, be dragged to court, risk losing, etc.


If employees at Google see activism go un-retaliated-against, then it may become so rampant that it actually does pose an existential threat to Google.

That's fair. I guess the question, then, is whether or not this kind of activism can actually represent a real threat to the company. I lean towards "I doubt it", at least in any realistic scenario. But I'd be interested to hear the arguments for that position.


You may be right, but a company the size of Google may view the legal costs + bad press that they have to hire PR people to expunge from the minds of the community as a fairly trivial overall cost relative to sending a damning authoritarian style message that they will hit back hard. With nearly infinite money & power, it is hard to speculate what their ethical calculus is in a situation like this.


Not sure why you're being downvoted. Contacting a lawyer can be a scary, expensive proposition. Doing so in order to make a case against your employer, which provides your livelihood, sounds even harder. Even if these people prevail, the entire experience can have a chilling effect on other would-be activists.


> That manager is the one who ought to be fired.

True, but I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for it to happen.


This doesn't sound like organized retaliation, but like a loyal and angry manager taking initiative and seeking retaliation. At least, as summarized. The company itself probably could have prevented it by having meetings about it ahead of time but may not have had a hand in it


> This doesn't sound like organized retaliation, but like a loyal and angry manager taking initiative and seeking retaliation.

The article also mentions that when she contacted HR and her VP, the situation got worse. So even if the initial act was that of a lone-wolf manager, the rest of the management chain supported and escalated the retaliation. That's organized enough for me.


There's also a certain kind of gluttony to it. She's presumably making what, 200k+, if not way more? Their solution is just have her take medical leave so they don't have to deal with the "awkwardness" of working with her, where she will presumably continue making that money while doing zero work. It's just like, damn, what a nice company you got there.


I apologize if this is a naive question, but didn't they expect to get fired? I certainly would, if I started publicly protesting my employer.


Not only is it a terribly bad look, retaliation against workers organizing is against the law.

EDIT: Since people don't believe me: https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/retaliation.cfm


That law protects against retaliation only against certain protected actions by the employees. Nothing these Google employees did is even close to being on that list. The Google employees simply didn't like what their company was doing and decided to take a very public action against it. There is nothing protected about that at all, whatsoever. I don't even think it would be covered if they were unionized.


Per another Wired article [1], they organized the walkout to protest sexual harassment:

> Thousands of Google employees and contractors around the globe—many of them women—briefly walked off the job Thursday to protest Google’s handling of sexual harassment claims and other workplace issues, and to demand more transparency around harassment incidents and pay levels at the company.

The aforelinked EEOC page [2] explicitly mentions that asserting your right to not be harassed is protected activity:

> communicating with a supervisor or manager about employment discrimination, including harassment

> Other acts to oppose discrimination are protected as long as the employee was acting on a reasonable belief that something in the workplace may violate EEO laws

[1] https://www.wired.com/story/google-walkout-just-latest-sign-...

[2] https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/retaliation.cfm


"Other acts to oppose discrimination are protected as long as the employee was acting on a reasonable belief that something in the workplace may violate EEO laws"

That's pretty vague. And nothing else on the government site supports protests. That's not any sort of normally protected activity in regards to labor laws. Plus, I think it's fairly common knowledge that if you walk out of your office to protest anything (your employer, the government, the weather, whatever), nearly everyone would say that you walking out is you not performing your job duties at that specific time. And I don't think Google or any other company has a written policy to take part in protests. The government's site seems to indicate that following the company's policies and HR practices with regards to raising the alarm bells at alleged/suspected improper activity cannot receive retaliation.

EDIT - I was wrong. It is protected. https://www.law.com/corpcounsel/2018/11/01/when-a-walkout-hi...


I don’t know whether a walkout would or wouldn’t be a protected activity. It’s a tricky question with a lot of moving parts. I suspect you don’t know either. If that’s the case, you ought to be more careful about giving legal advice in confidant and unconditional terms where that advice, if taken, could lead to adverse consequences for readers.

If you are attorney specializing in labor law and you think the above posts comport with your ethical obligations, then carry on I guess.



I can’t read that article, but I would be shocked if any an attorney said in print that is was definitely protected without any kind of conditions or caveats the way the ancestor post did.


You're correct, IANAL, but is merely quoting an official EEOC page tantamount to giving legal advice? GGP said "Nothing these Google employees did is even close to being on that list", and I pointed out items on the list that were. I didn't intend for it to come across as legal advice.


This is Google we're talking about - where, as shown in the Damore complaint, organized trolling groups were routinely cyber-harassing and cyber-bullying coworkers on company-provided spaces and "forums", often with the implied acquiescence of middle management, for purely political reasons. It's just harassment fest and the definition of a toxic work environment - and they got away with it. Sure, the shoe is now on the "other" foot so to say, but other than that what exactly has changed?


Breitbart is probably not the most authoritative source on Google's internal politics.


Funny that you should say that when I didn't mention Breitbart at all! I referenced the extensive evidence provided by James Damore - formerly a relatively high-profile Google employee - and privately confirmed or corroborated to Damore by other Googlers or former Googlers, not all of whom were necessarily willing to come out publicly.


You're wrong about this. The walkout organizers were engaging in concerted action to redress a specific workplace grievance, and that conduct is protected under US labor law.

Google is not allowed to retaliate, either by punishing them, or by offering positive incentives to others to not participate in the conduct.


You are correct. I was wrong. I found an explanation of it but can no longer edit my original comment.

https://www.law.com/corpcounsel/2018/11/01/when-a-walkout-hi...


Which is why any actions Google would take against the organizers would be especially carefully scrutinized. That's why I'm surprised- to take this action, Google HR would have to know they would be watched closely and likely end up with a court case (a skeptic might surmise that the protestors were hoping such a case would occur).


Effective retaliation turns a difficult HR and employee morale problem into a minor legal problem. A court case is a bad outcome for labor organizers—they can never hope to match the resources their employer can bring to bear, and the proceedings can last for years. For that reason, it's a good outcome for the employer, and why you see large companies using the tactic at the first sign of labor unrest.


White collar crime (like retaliation, or wage theft) is rarely tried or prosecuted for.


Violations of the NLRA are rarely criminal.


Is there any case where they've been criminal?


I'm not aware, but I'm always worried some lawyer is going to come and smite me with a fraud case where the NLRA was tangentially involved.


The walkouts were organized to protest ongoing claims of sexual harassment and abuse. That is protected action. Namely, the second bulletpoint here: "communicating with a supervisor or manager about employment discrimination, including harassment"


You are correct. I can't edit my original comment anymore but found this explanation - https://www.law.com/corpcounsel/2018/11/01/when-a-walkout-hi...


The NLRA is pretty complicated and it comes down to what you can get the NLRB to agree about, but this does qualify as protected concerted activity. Anything which is collective organizing in the interests of the employees w.r.t. working conditions is protected. Protesting gender discrimination is literally a text book case. I recommend "labor law for the rank and filer" as a nice introduction to the field.


You are correct. I can't edit my original comment anymore but found this explanation - https://www.law.com/corpcounsel/2018/11/01/when-a-walkout-hi...


You link only pertains to "asserting their rights to be free from employment discrimination including harassment", and none of the example bullet points cover a mass walk-out, or organizing/encouraging fellow employees to stop doing their jobs.

I suspect you're still right on the law due to other provisions - it's just that link, and section of the law, doesn't obviously cover what happened at Google. You can "communicate", and resist specific discriminatory/harassing actions, without stopping all other legitimate work for speeches & sign-carrying.


That one is just the cliff notes. From the more detailed guidance at https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/retaliation-guidance.cfm#...:

"Depending on the circumstances, calling public attention to alleged discrimination may constitute reasonable opposition, provided that it is connected to an alleged violation of the EEO laws. Opposition may include even activities such as picketing."

i.e. direct labor action is considered part of the right to communicate grievances.


Picketing on one's own time is still quite different than "not working during a normal workday". And now we're into situations where the particulars matter, as acknowledged by the more-tentative "may constitute" and "may include" phrasing of your new quote.

(There's probably better protection for their organizing and the walkout in labor-organizing law, rather than the non-discrimination/non-harassment statutes you're citing.)


This wasn't 'workers organizing' though, was it? I mean, the workers organized in order to protest this ethics board, but they wouldn't be punished for the organizing, but for publicly shitting on a company product?

If I work for a car company, and we come out with a car, and I go on record saying how crappy the car is and how no one should buy it - would that be a protected activity?


I'd assume that most of them didn't expect much/any disfavor.

Wild guess is that Google internal culture has more "we're the good guys" beliefs among employees than many other companies. And, at least in the past, Google officially supported Don't Be Evil.

If so, that good-guy identification might be self-fulfilling to some degree, in the people who are attracted disproportionately, and in reinforcement from an atmosphere of many people identifying that way.

Continuing the wild guessing, it's possible that people think Google is a safer place to speak up than many other places.

And especially in the age of 'social media', we have blurred ideas of where the line is, between collegial dialogue and public performance. Also, a single person's blurred ideas about that can turn something that was internal for everyone else, into public for everyone else.

Though, in general, if people feel they have to go public about an issue (assuming it's genuine by everyone, not a self-regulation/PR stunt, nor politician-style individual career-building by some)... that seems to suggest that they don't have sufficient influence and trust internally, without putting the organization on the spot publicly. If you don't trust your colleagues/management to do the right thing, or you still don't have influence, I'd say that's not a place you want to be. If the idea of walking away sounds bad, consider whether you actually can find influence and trust within the organization. (And let the rest of us know where you eventually find influence&trust, because that can be hard to find.)


Protected activities are protected. You'll notice from the text of that article that some of the retaliation stopped once a lawyer got involved.


There are lots of reasons the involvement of lawyers could slow things down. That doesn't mean that Google was behaving illegally.


I am sure they'll be moved to a different project and then subsequently fired for "performance reasons".


That is also against the law. From https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/retaliation.cfm

> For example, depending on the facts, it could be retaliation if an employer acts because of the employee's EEO activity to:

> * transfer the employee to a less desirable position;


Thank goodness for the labor movement.


The problem with that, like so many laws, is that you have to prove motive for the law to work. I'm sure the previous commenter is not so naive as to think companies give a formal, written demotion stating that their EEO activity was the reason.


Not anymore you don’t. It’s easy nowadays to conceal motive through indirection.


Okay, again, I'm uninformed: How is anyone supposed to establish WHY a company does something? The rule says, "For example, depending on the facts, it could be retaliation if an employer acts because of the employee's EEO activity to..."

The word because bewilders me here. Who knows why anyone does anything? I don't know why I do 90% of what I do. If someone accused me of having tuna for lunch because of someone's EEO activity, how could I possibly prove they were wrong?


The same way that you "prove" anything in the legal system: Present your case in front of a jury, while your opponent has the chance to rebut your claims. Keep in mind that the legal standard for civil claims is "more likely than not," as opposed to the more famous "beyond a shadow of a doubt" standard that is used for criminal cases.

So, you'll go up at trail and present a bunch of data points, and build a narrative around those data points. Look, you say, I had good reviews from my managers and glowing recommendations from my co-workers. Despite this, I was fired shortly after I Did A Thing. Is this a coincidence or retaliatory? Your employer would attempt to provide evidence that your work quality actually dropped off, you would attempt to present evidence that either the quality stayed the same, or else that goalposts were moved for no good reason.

Note that both parties have the ability to compel various types of evidence to be produced. You would be able to subpeona the employer for emails between bosses, or manager notes, or reviews and such. You could be able to compel people to testify around a variety of facts.

... if this process sounds rather onerous, now you know why trials take a long time and many parties prefer to settle privately rather than engage in the full court process.


> as opposed to the more famous "beyond a shadow of a doubt" standard that is used for criminal cases.

Curiously, this is a standard that isn't well understood. It's "beyond a reasonable doubt", not "any doubt whatsoever". You saw it a lot in some of the Bitcoin cases (Silk Road)... "Well, they can't prove that he wasn't set up or that the wallet matching his wasn't entirely a coincidence, (crypto signatures be damned), so there's doubt, and he should be acquitted".


When you run a multi-billion dollar company, you need to know why you do 90% of what you do. If you don't, you can talk about it with people called "lawyers" who can tell you whether it's a good idea or a bad one before you do it.

They demoted two employees who were highly performing, weren't told otherwise, but coincidentally highly instrumental in organizing and staging protests. Doesn't take a genius to figure out why they were forcibly transferred.


> Doesn't take a genius to figure out why they were forcibly transferred.

This doesn't meet the standards for burden of proof.


As lmkg mentioned at https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19721225 - the burden of proof in civil cases is "preponderance of the evidence". This kind of information can easily clear the bar.


I would guess it would go like this: 1. Fired employee sues employer 2. During discovery, fire employees lawyer requests all documentation/emails/performance reviews for employee 3. Lawyer tries to show proof there was no other reason for the firing.


"How is anyone supposed to establish WHY a company does something?"

There could be an email trail, or testimony from witnesses to conversations in which the motivations were discussed. That's direct evidence.

There could also be indirect evidence, for example, if there was a pattern of firing employees directly after they participated in protected activities.


often there is a paper trail. When IBM fires a lot of old people, they make sure to have 6 months of negative performance reviews. Google's way is to make it hard to work on the projects you enjoy working on so it eventually becomes less painful to just leave.


> How is anyone supposed to establish WHY a company does something?

Courts deal with mens rea and actus rea every day. They look at the evidence and see if it meets the burden of proof.


> I certainly would, if I started publicly protesting my employer.

I'm sure most Europeans here would agree that this is a very sad statement.


Broadly speaking, it's illegal to fire or otherwise punish people for this kind of concerted workplace action, under the Wagner Act. This is the cornerstone of US labor law.

It's important to point out that you can get fired for protesting alone. But once you start organizing, you unlock a lot of legal protections.


>It's important to point out that you can get fired for protesting alone.

In California, where many of these workers are located, there are additional protections that might cover this.


Thank you! TIL, etc...


They probably did expect Google to illegally fire them, but they would be morons not to publicize that Google illegally fired them.


Of course they did. That's one of the points to doing it. They also expected to fight the consequences.


> but didn't they expect to get fired? I certainly would, if I started publicly protesting my employer

What a sad state of affairs when workers in the supposed 'greatest country on earth' feel that way.


[flagged]


They don’t expect to be fired because it would be against the law if they were.


Sure, you don't think Google will find a way to identify these "problem" employees, transfer them to a pointless project or put them on something that will cause them to leave on their own accord?

Their managers could easily give them CMEs for good reason (wasting time on activist bullshit instead of doing work, etc..), essentially forcing them to leave...


right, labor law is aware of "constructive dismissal," been a part of the law since, gosh, 1964?

oh right but this is ~google~ in the ~silicon valley tech industry~ so stodgy old concepts like "long settled labor law" still appear to be wholly unheard of by the average techie bootlicker


"We're a plucky startup that seeks to disrupt the labor laws industry"


Ah, you mean Uber?


> transfer them to a pointless project or put them on something that will cause them to leave on their own accord?

This could be the subject of a dystopia or a dark comedy where the free world has been taken over because could-be revolutionaries are placed on boring, pointless, mismanaged, tail-chasing projects so they have no time to think about the bigger picture or take any real action against the system.


> This could be the subject of a dystopia or a dark comedy where the free world has been taken over because could-be revolutionaries are placed on boring, pointless, mismanaged, tail-chasing projects so they have no time to think about the bigger picture or take any real action against the system.

This sounds like the current world we all live and work in...basically we have a bunch of "bullshit jobs" to occupy our time during the day and endless trash entertainment to distract us and keep us from noticing how shitty modern industrial life really is...


That is also illegal.


Hey, could you please stop acting like the idea that someone would follow the law is absurd or laughable?


You are referring to the concept of "constructive dismissal". This would also be illegal.


I’m sure they know it might happen. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t call it out when the (illegal) retaliation does happen.


Generally speaking to reach that high of level you have to have fully drunk the kool-aid and be an owned person. It'd furthermore take a lot of stones to risk compensation that high (and probable soft blackballing for similar positions at other companies). See: https://medium.com/incerto/how-to-legally-own-another-person...


This reminds me of a recent conversation with Tyler Cowen and Jordan Peterson: https://medium.com/conversations-with-tyler/tyler-cowen-jord...:

COWEN: If we turn to senior management of large American companies, as a class of people — and I know it’s hard to generalize — but what do you see them as just not getting?

PETERSON: I would caution them not to underestimate the danger of their human resources departments.

COWEN: Say more.

PETERSON: Yeah, well, because I see that the social justice etiology that’s destroyed a huge swath of academia is on the march in a major way through corporate America. And if the corporate people think they’re immune to it, they’ve got another think coming. It’s not like they’re any smarter than the universities.

COWEN: And who gave the HR department so much power? How did that happen? What myth did we follow that led us wrong?

PETERSON: That’s a good question because they had virtually no power to begin with, right? HR departments have always been underpowered, so to speak.

If Google is still mostly focused on writing software and building the future, rather than prosecuting culture wars, that strikes me as a slight but real positive sign.


Firing people for organizing is in fact taking part in a war. It's just the wrong side of the battle, which you may prefer.


> PETERSON: Yeah, well, because I see that the social justice etiology (sic.) that’s destroyed a huge swath of academia is on the march in a major way through corporate America. And if the corporate people think they’re immune to it, they’ve got another think coming. It’s not like they’re any smarter than the universities.

I've heard that Peterson was spreading worthless claptrap, but am still a little suprised.

> If Google is still mostly focused on writing software and building the future, rather than prosecuting culture wars

Thankfully, Google has stayed away from Peterson


[flagged]


>In other words, if corporations stopped trying to prevent sexual harassment and discrimination

If by 'other words' you mean, someone else's words. Eliminating harassment/discrimination is common sense for a company, ethically and for liability sake; he's not advocating against that.

But if you're a shareholder or investor in a software company, that suddenly diverts funds and resources to fight social causes (outside the scope of your mission statement), you have every right to have concern or be critical.


> if corporations stopped trying to prevent sexual harassment and discrimination, Jordan Peterson would consider it a positive sign.

That's not the implication. He was speaking about the Damore issue, wherein the Google HR department focused on mandating equity.

> The more I learn about this guy, the more of a scum bag he appears.

Most everyone who criticizes him takes a bad faith approach and draws their own conclusions. This is typical. eg /r/enoughpetersonspam for endless interpretations of phrases as philosophical statements


This is just all so weird.

If google is such a bad company, then quit working for them.

It's not really a protest, it's a tactic to wrestle control over the company and win social points with their "victory".

They want the social status of having protested something, yet with zero of the fallout.

They still collect google paychecks, collect google 401k money, still have google health insurance AND want to be able to say they "stuck it to the man"

It's just so odd all the way around.

They had a google walkout, then google didn't change anything, then the protesters went back to work.

It was all just a stunt.


Why does this exact same objection come up again and again? Why do we have to leave our companies instead of trying to make positive change from within? Why is the only prescribed solution to take flight to new lands, like locusts, staying ahead of the flood? What do we do when there are no more companies to which to flee, and the effects of that which we are fleeing is harming society?


It's a another version of the argument "If you don't like our country behaving the way I think it should behave, you should leave the country".

Absolutely sometimes the best thing for an individual to do is take their marbles and go home. But equally, sometimes the best thing to do is put your shoulder to pushing the wheels in [what you perceive as] a better direction. Companies (and countries) after all are not stand-alone entities; they are an expression of their constituent parts. Some of this is history/momentum, but a lot of it is just people.

[edit] of course I think the bar for "when should I leave my company" is an awful lot lower than "when should I leave my country".


The analogy doesn't work too well, because employees of a company are distinct from its owners and decision makers. An employee in a private company is more akin to a civil service bureaucrat in a government, hired to perform some function. And we generally expect civil servants to be apolitical - they still get to vote etc, of course, but in their capacity as citizens, not government workers.

Mind you, I don't think that means that employees (or public workers, for that matter) should just shut up. But the argument for "should just leave" is stronger in this case than it is for citizens.


Hence the bar being much lower. It's not an exact parallel, but it works pretty well. No company is it's executives alone, no country is its government alone.


I'm not sure I agree. At least not completely.

A person is within their rights to try and change the company from within before leaving. But, that will likely come with personal costs (right or wrong).

If those costs get to be too high, the correct action might be to leave. At a company, the impact of leaving could be much higher than the impact of moving to a different country on politics...

Google very much relies on "smart people" to earn money. If enough leave in protest, Google will eventually suffer. It would take a LOT of people leaving the US for there to be any noticeable impact.


> A person is within their rights to try and change the company from within before leaving. But, that will likely come with personal costs (right or wrong).

It is generally the opposite. You usually don't have any right to influence, or even sometimes speak about, the company. The right you do have is to suspend your work and go on strike. Companies are free to negotiate collective agreements that prevent worker to go on strike and instead have them complain to their representatives.

Google have opted for another model where there is no agreement. As such it is up to Google to win the trust of their employees.

> If those costs get to be too high, the correct action might be to leave. At a company, the impact of leaving could be much higher than the impact of moving to a different country on politics...

Impact isn't the same as change. If all people who like ice cream leave Google it doesn't make Google (or necessarily any place) better for people who like ice cream. Which is what they would want.

The whole point of taking action is that you think you are right and therefor shouldn't be the one to have to change, or at least not end up worse for it.


I meant “right” in the “it’s not illegal and your employer can’t physically silence you” sense, not the “you’re legally protected from repercussions” sense.

I think we’re generally in agreement.


Google will suffer a lot more if it continually takes big PR hits over crap like this.


I don’t see people stop using Gmail, Maps, and Search over little PR problems only a small minority care about.


Because those products are unrelated to AI.

Big players will not (and are not) touching GCP's AI solutions for this exact reason: it's only a matter of time before the virtue signalers are no longer content with policing the decisions of their own company and start targeting customer workloads.


I don't see them doing so over a small amount of "smart people quitting" either.


No one outside of the HN crowd and a couple of bubbles on twitter has heard a single thing about this, or cares in the slightest. There was no PR hit.


We are talking about the realm of "Google being a place people want to work"

Demonstrating that management takes petty actions like this is far more convincing than people silently quitting.


I'd be more willing to work for Google if they had a history of not caving in to lynch mobs and punishing the leaders, instead of the other way around.


I currently work for Google and share your sentiment. There is a small minority of employee activists that really drag the place down and their voices are unfortunately the ones that seem to get amplified. I don't get how they aren't put on PIPs or told to hit the road.


I'd like to say, clearly: I worked at Google and really felt uncomfortable with how a small fraction of the employees dominated the inner communication channels and pretended like everybody agreed with them. Many of us were afraid to speak up after a number of incidents due to the climate. However, over team it really became clear that a small number of people were repeatedly dominating the discourse in an unreasonable way.

I don't think the management is just gonna toss the protestors on PIPs without strong evidence they aren't getting their daily jobs done.


A small group of the most outspoken people always dominates discourse in any group of reasonable scale. It's how group dynamics work. The question that matters is if those attitudes reflect wider attitudes at the company. And I think the answer is yes.

The dominant speakers spoke popular opinions.


Maybe for MTV and NYC...but go out to Google's DCs and you'll find 80%+ conservatives who don't agree with all the anti-military and demonization of the right that goes on internally.


Which is different than what you said before. That there are some who disagree with those views is obvious. But you're claiming a large majority dissent. Even if every DC employee shared your views, which they don't, it wouldn't back your claim


What did I say before that conflicts with the regional and office differences I pointed out?

I never claimed that a large portion dissent.


I'm making statements about absolute numbers. If something like 80% of google employees as a whole are democratic, and 80% of DC techs are conservative, then what you said about regional differences is true, however your claims about the ideas you dislike being held by a small but vocal minority would not be true.

The specific claim I'm addressing is the one that you made and that dekhn echoed, that these are the views of only a minority. To give an extreme example, extrapolating from the opinions of DC techs wouldn't make sense if google employed only a single DC tech.


>And I think the answer is yes.

>The dominant speakers spoke popular opinions.

I'm not sure this is actually the case. There was a survey a year or so back that listed 'Libertarian' as the most common political leaning among SV tech workers [0]. People who reported being 'Very Liberal' were far more comfortable sharing their political opinions at work, though. And judging from the lynch mobs we've seen in the past few years... Well, there's a few good reasons to avoid mentioning libertarian or conservative political views in SV.

0: https://joinlincoln.org/viewpoint-diversity


I don't generally find surveys by libertarian think-tanks that don't provide any methodology information (beyond hinting that respondents were self-selected) to be that representative of reality.

While probably better than the similar survey on blind a year ago, I wouldn't put much trust in it. Nor should you.

Now your statements about comfort are spot on. But consider why that is. The people you discuss fear ostracism, but how does one get ostracized if one is in the majority? It's the same reason a more liberal person might not share their views in a company full of conservatives. The whole silent majority idea is wishful thinking.


> I don't generally find surveys by libertarian think-tanks that don't provide any methodology information (beyond hinting that respondents were self-selected) to be that representative of reality.

Yeah, that's fair.

> The people you discuss fear ostracism, but how does one get ostracized if one is in the majority?

Because there has never in history been a case of a small group of people exercising power over a larger group, even when the larger group could, if organized, easily overcome the smaller. Never happened.

But seriously, this is a game of equilibria. If everyone who speaks against X gets lynched, and people who don't enthusiastically support that lynching find themselves next in line, it doesn't matter how many people actually support X or like lynching. Any individual moving against that system gets lynched, including by the people who dislike both X and lynching, because no one wants to be lynched themselves.


Coming back to this, I'd like to suggest [0] - it is possible for things to be both popular, or commonly known to be true, or what have you AND still be impossible to support or acknowledge without consequences. I think [1] feels relevant to the general situation of "X is declared to be true" as well.

0: https://slatestarcodex.com/2018/05/23/can-things-be-both-pop...

1: https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/10/23/kolmogorov-complicity-...


I'm confused. Are you likening people who are upset about mishandled sexual misconduct allegations to lynch mobs?


It's on the NYTimes: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/22/technology/google-walkout...

Their readership is certainly outside of the HN crowd.


to be clear, the folks who are subjects of the NY Times article are fairly friendly with the article authors. You may want to take a look at the history of the authors, and see that the same names come up (mcmillen, whittaker) over and over. It's a complicated situation but the Times tend to cover labor relations at Google far in excess of the true impact of these events.


Not as much as you might think.


Yeah, I bet they suffer as much as Equifax did for leaking 100M American adults’ credit information, or Facebook has suffered for literally experimenting with human subjects by manipulating the home feed to see if users’ mood was influenced. I could go on.

There’s only one meaningful punishment a corporation can suffer, and it’s by design: the death penalty.


The analogy fails as one can’t simply “start” their own country, as one can start their own company. Further, a corporation isn’t a democratic institution which openly invites discord. There is a word for when one does this however: insubordination. Here’s an analogy that does work: The owner of a home has the right to determine who abodes in it, and by extension what actions they can engage in. You’re essentially arguing that the opposite, i.e. that private property doesn’t exist.

Political institutions exist to provide a forum for discourse. Private property exists so that the individual can be free of the tyranny of the other by not being forced to make a bargain with whomever decides they want in.

Having said all this, I agree with the spirit of your argument. However, going public and or legal makes you an enemy of the organisation and will more than likely result in having to leave the organisation sooner or later.


A lot of it depends if someone likes/respecte the company or not I think. If I don't care about my employer and their vision, I'd just leave. If you care about the company and customers you might want to stay and try to help achieve change.


My very short opinion on this: politics is the process of working within a system; protesting is the process of removing oneself _from_ the system. The story of the Civil Rights protests would have been very different had African Americans continued to ride the bus.

There’s a place for both, but I’m not sure there’s a lot of overlap. If you want to protest your boss, that’s fine. But I’d encourage you to have your resume up-to-date. Very few people take an activist role in a company and stay employed. But heated discussions and debate are a natural part of any board meeting.


Uh the bus protest was them riding the bus and continuing to ride the bus. You missed literally the entire events and purpose of one of the most well documented protest in history.


I think you're missing part of the story: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montgomery_bus_boycott


> The story of the Civil Rights protests would have been very different had African Americans continued to ride the bus.

I don't know what you're trying to say here. Most of the most famous actions during the civil rights movement were African Americans doing things that were only illegal because of racist laws supported by cultural white supremacy (lunch-counter sit-ins; pubic buses; sometimes merely existing in certain areas at certain times). Metaphorically, they did "continue to ride the bus", if that means they continued to engage in the same actions involved in the protests, because those actions were eventually made legal. For those interested in learning more about the movement, I recommend "The Children" by David Halberstam. He makes clear just how dangerous being a civil rights protestor was.


As another comment points out, I was referring to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I live in Alabama and that is a lesson we teach our kids (there’s a wonderful book introducing these very harsh themes at a level even young kids can understand: “I Am Rosa Parks”).

Those involved were willing to take incredible personal risks in forms of protest until their voices were represented in politics.


Here’s a pretty solid write up. The emergence of MLK on the national scene even had its origin in this boycott. There isn’t a figurative interpretation here: the black community in Montgomery refused to ride the bus until it was desegregated. They kept this up for over a year until the Supreme Court forced the city to integrate its busing.

https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/montgomery-bus-...


> What do we do when there are no more companies to which to flee

A more interesting conversation for sure. There are lots of ways to make software besides companies. Lots of great software that got made before there was a corporate entity supporting it, even indirectly. Some great software written entirely in opposition to a corporate entity.

Don't obsess too narrowly on "GPL" or "open source" or whatever. A lot of software is artisanal, all the way from making websites to make firmwares for space devices, bought and sold on the digital equivalent of a fleamarket and not by the concentration of some corporate entity. Some software is bought/sold at auction, like government contracts.

No one is objecting to corporations generally. There's a reaction against (1) the conformity of it all and (2) the pedigree of the people who work there.

How do supposedly smart people, with their liberal arts and STEM educations, represent a shareholder group that is most likely going to treat the ordinary person unjustly?

For example, it's possible to research AI at universities. No one is going to pressure you into making target-acquisition image recognition or person-of-interest mass-surveillance tech at a university. But these are exactly the sorts of things Google was selling in its Maven contract. They want to sell fucking weapons dude.

We have this intuitive idea that a lot of people are okay with selling the weapons basically because the pay is really fucking good. The controversy is that the Northrup Grumman employees are the "other," and Google engineers were like soft kids from Ivy League schools who are friendly and nice and watch lots of animal videos and crack good jokes.

It just turns out they want money too sometimes, a lot of it. The line has finally been crossed where people have to either quit or shut up.


>> For example, it's possible to research AI at universities. No one is going to pressure you into making target-acquisition image recognition or person-of-interest mass-surveillance tech at a university

You might want to look into the vast amount of military tech that was developed at research universities, often indirectly driven via availability of grants. Academia isn't really a safe haven here.


> There are lots of ways to make software besides companies.

I know you’re interpreting “what happens when there are no more companies to flee to” with respect to software engineers, but I have to ask: how would you make software if there were no companies making computers?


It's the same line as when people complain about the direction of politics and get a "well then move to a different country" response.

At least in politics you can vote. As a worker, you have very little control in direction of a large employer.


I believe the idea is that employees should be seen but not heard.

Democracy is all well and good, as long as it knows its proper place in the corporate hierarchy.


I certainly agree with the notion of trying to affect change from within but how viable is that at a company like Google? In looking at just the recent past for example we see sexual harassment mishandling, work on censorship-enabled search, Pentagon contracts, double Dutch tax avoidance schemes etc.

At some point don't you conclude that the distance between your own value system and that of the corporation you work is just too great?


if you want a say in the policies of your workplace, a traditional corporation isn't the kind of company you should be working for. you explicitly don't have a say unless the structure of the organization gives you that power, which is explicitly the case for cooperative corporations only.

if you want real change, start a cooperative.


Voice versus exit: this is pretty much an open question, but it's central to really-really discussing political change.

At the very least you need to be aware that those are options and not be surprised when someone argues that exit >> voice.


> What do we do when there are no more companies to which to flee, and the effects of that which we are fleeing is harming society?

Start your own company...or destroy those that are trying to destroy you


A public protest is not advocating change from within.

Companies like Google encouraged a continuation of a college like atmosphere, but it is not college. It's a job. If you're not there to work and add value to the company, the what are you doing?

In college it may be ok to demonstrate against the EVIL THING, but work is not college. In college you're paying to be there. At work, you're getting paid to add value.


The history of labor is in this form of protest. Googlers are more comfortable than many others. The further down the chain you go the more precarious the workers and dependent on their pay checks, and the easier time management has retaliating.

This stuff is legally protected because before we had legal protections, conflicts devolved into straight out armed struggle, with employers hiring mercenaries (notably the pinkertons) to break up employee resistance with guns.


> "If google is such a bad company, then quit working for them."

Why not try to change what is Bad?

I could see this working for a small local coffee shop, but for something as big as Google where many employees could be replaced, and how it effects the lives of billions of people on the planet (and elsewhere), you not working there wouldn't bring any real net positive change.

If I hate Comcast and ATT and chose to ignore them for being Bad, I really wouldn't have broadband options. My municipality would be a good contender to start their own ISP, but are banned from doing so thanks to Comcast passing laws in my state (most states in US now), and the "system" for allowing them to pass said laws.

I am not going to just quit internet because I hate them, but I have and continue to try to hold them accountable and have them do better.

So as long as monolithic monopolies exist with the support of the many institutions set in place today, ignoring bad does no good.


> you not working there wouldn't bring any real net positive change.

You do not know that. Perhaps them not working there deprives the corporation of their ideas and skills, and frees the person's time and energy for a work helping the positive change.


So your suggestion, if you see an injustice, is to leave, so that the situation is handled by people who don't recognize the injustice?

That'll help!


What exactly is the injustice? AI being used for military applications?

Most of these AI algorithms are open source and available on Github for anyone to use. The military is still gonna have their big bad robot with a gun that can immediately identify enemy combatants as soon as it enters a room.

The genie is out of the bag.


I wasn't addressing the morality of the underlying issue, but rather the virtue of this type of protest in principle.

> If google is such a bad company, then quit working for them.

Still, your comment is mistaken. The Google Walkout wasn't directly about AI or Google's other business offerings, it was mainly about sexual harassment and working conditions; the organizers were very clear about this: https://www.thecut.com/2018/11/google-walkout-organizers-exp... One of the main sparks was the discovery that Andy Rubin has been paid hundreds of millions and protected by management while he was being fired for sexual harassment. These are subjects where the law generally protects employees from retaliation.


> Most of these AI algorithms are open source and available on Github for anyone to use.

This is like saying "because we can create nuclear bombs, we might as well should because it pays well!"

No, with the power to engineer something comes the responsibility to make sure you are not creating something terrible. This is Ethics 101. Even if the philosophical/ethical argument is not something you care for - how many more countless, concrete examples throughout history does one need to understand this fact?


Way to go framing people standing for what they believe in as a “stunt”. Apart from a frequent talking point aiming to discredit activists this POV also reveals a lack of understanding for any action which is either a strategy to enrich oneself or a hypocritical attempt to look good.


Sometimes it's better to be in the ship to steer it.


This comment seems to fall very far outside the principle of charity that HN requires from users.


The general tone of moderation is to discourage a posture of shallow cynicism. In practice this is difficult to enforce because some level of reasonable discussion will always fall in the grey area and you don't want to appear heavy-handed.


The entire content of that comment is a shallow dismissal of the events as a 'stunt' by people assumed to be acting in bad faith. It is an exact example of what is said to be discouraged.


Maybe I missed it in the other comments but is anyone else uneasy about the idea of your coworkers having a town hall to tell their "stories"? Just seems ripe for unfounded accusations or cherry picked facts to basically defame a coworker.


> is anyone else uneasy about the idea of your coworkers having a town hall to tell their "stories"?

Sometimes, ironically, I think they specifically set those up to flush out non-conformists, the naive, and the trouble-makers. Invite them to "share their thoughts" then start building black lists. I am only half joking there https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hundred_Flowers_Campaign


You better explain this than I.


Meredith Whittaker has a clear conflict of interest. As evidenced by her campaigning against Google's AI ethics board (and the resulting fallout), her organization's agenda for AI ethics conflicts with Google's, so she has to choose one or the other.


About Kay Cole James, Ms. James served as Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources under then-Governor George Allen and was the dean of Regent University's government school. She is currently a member of the NASA Advisory Council. She is the president and founder of the Gloucester Institute, a leadership training center for young African Americans. She is an African-American woman.

In other words, she is eminently qualified. Yet Meredith Whittaker organized people against her because she disagrees with her politics.

Ms. James has not one incident on record where she caused harm to anyone. She is merely the head of a conservative think-tank.

Diversity of thought is very important. I feel little sympathy for the trouble-causers. Google looked idiotic when it disbanded the council.


I'm surprised they weren't fired for publicly admitting they weren't doing their job.


Employees that bring politics to work are making the workplace uncomfortable for everyone else who has a different (or perhaps a more nuanced-) opinion, but can't speak up. They are creating constant distractions that take away from the work at hand, especially when it forces others to drop their actual work and engage (either passively by reading/keeping-up or actively by spending effort getting involved). These disruptive outrages are largely irrelevant to the mission of the company except via generous stretches of logic. Those involved in workplace activism also often violate the confidentiality that is expected in the corporate context, leaking email threads and weaponizing manufactured outrage via social media or journalistic outlets against the company and dissenting employees. The dynamic that has been created is also often politically-biased (rather than neutral), particularly at large tech companies, because psychological safety is only afforded to those who align with a progressive far-left platform.

Let's be clear, most of the justification (and claims of protection) for recent employee activism relies on mental gymnastics. There is no standing, for example, for random Google employees to expect to be involved in the selection of members of an AI ethics panel or in the acceptance criteria for clientele. There is no standing for employees to be involved in most of the company's decisions. This is especially true for the relatively-junior employees who are often driving these protests, since they lack the experience/skillset/visibility to have any useful/comprehensive perspective on complex corporate decisions. It is immature for them to expect involvement or transparency on-demand, and to protest decisions they disagree with that are beyond their horizon. If these activists were truly honest, they would conduct petitions via anonymous voting mechanisms (e.g. internal surveys) that let all employees vote for/against/indifferent, so that a broad voice is heard and not just a skewed vocal minority that faces no consequence. But these same activists won't do that, since these protests are not at all about making the best decisions or being inclusive, but rather about power dynamics and trying to get one's own way.

Google has lots of standing to take action against these employees. If these employees don't want to work at Google, or don't display motivation around their core role/function, let them quit or fire them. If they are not performing their duties and are instead spending work time on personal agendas, fire them. If they are disrupting the workplace by constantly fomenting outrage on the Internet, fire them. If they are hurting the company's brand and working against the interests of the company (or shareholders) by engaging in self-serving political activism, fire them. If they disrespect and alienate most of their customer base by only advocating for their own worldview, fire them. All this should be uncontroversial - after all, many others will line up for those jobs and Google will be just fine.


You're entirely mistaken if you think your work is apolitical. These people aren't bringing politics to work; their work is bring politics to them.


Work has a mission, which is to create value for customers and charge a price that creates income for the company (and transitively for shareholders, employees, etc.). The justification for saying "all work is political" is basically the same as saying "all actions have impacts". Sure, all actions do have direct and indirect impacts, but then we don't need a word like "politics" to exist in our dictionary do we? After all, if anything is political, what differentiates this word from other language we already have available to us? As such, I reject this notion that tries to position employee activism as being somehow similar to otherwise everyday corporate operation.

Expanding on this further: I think colloquially, most people would agree that certain actions are explicitly political and certain ones are not. I do not view Google taking on a military contract as a political action, but rather a normal, expected action for an entity that tries to create value for others. The neutral-most stance, if any, is for them to accept all willing clients. On the other hand, employees protesting because they disagree with the actions/impacts of one of Google's clients, or employees who disagree with a specific application of a technology (which others unrelated to them see value in), are bringing personal judgment, personal opinions, personal values, personal morality, and personal politics into the workplace.

The reason I label these as 'personal' is because these employees are imposing their worldview on the company's decision-making, and overriding the democratic/distributed nature of transactions taking place freely in the market between two consenting entities (the corporation and its clients). Those transactions are better and more-neutral measures of value than the voice of a small but vocal minority acting within the company. Effectively, such employee activism is a corruption of the notion of creating value for others (or others recognizing value in your products), and therefore not aligned to what the corporate mission is. Since it is not aligned to the corporate mission or the job the employees are paid to do, it is personal or political but definitely not normal or acceptable, which is why disciplinary action is justified.


The neutral-most stance, if any, is for them to accept all willing clients.

This is not neutrality; it is capitalism without ethics, which is a moral stance that you are taking.

these employees are imposing their worldview on the company's decision-making

Your alternative is that the company should be able to impose their decision-making on the employees, and e.g. ask them to work on things which violate their personal principles, with their only alternative being to leave the company. In a world with a universal basic income without health care being tied to employment, where individuals were free to choose how to allocate their labor in a non-coercive environment, you might be able to argue this, but instead you are arguing that corporations have the right to freely transact in the market but employees (many of whom cannot pick and choose their employment or tolerate underemployment) do not have that right. Capitalism without ethics.

Corporations are simply groups of people. And those people are responsible for what the corporation does. They have not only a right, but an obligation to oppose actions by the corporation inimical to their worldview.


> This is not neutrality; it is capitalism without ethics, which is a moral stance that you are taking.

I disagree. It is neutrality, because it is recognizing that different parties and individuals have different ideas of what is acceptable to them (morally or otherwise), and that they can decide that for themselves. If there aren't enough customers to sustain some product/service, then that business would fail. If it finds product-market fit, then that business will continue to operate. It is a distributed method of taking measure of what people value and don't value, which includes a distributed notion of morality.

> Your alternative is that the company should be able to impose their decision-making on the employees, and e.g. ask them to work on things which violate their personal principles, with their only alternative being to leave the company.

Yes that is my alternative, and I don't see anything wrong with it. Those employees can choose to do the work that is asked of them or leave. The company is not imposing anything on the employees - they are compensating the employees for their time/labor, and get to specify in what capacity those employees can contribute. If you were an employee in the IT side of some company, and you saw the R&D side acquiring some other company, would you think "well I disagree and this makes me want to leave, but it is unfair that I was not consulted or don't have a voice in this matter or that my only choice is to leave"? Of course not. Why would it be any different on other matters?

Another example: If you hire a plumber to fix your toilet and that plumber took the opportunity to deliver a religious sermon at your home, would you find it acceptable? What if they lecture you on how you are parenting your kid or your relationship with your spouse? A lot of the recent employee activism is similar to these hypothetical situations, except at a larger scale.

> you are arguing that corporations have the right to freely transact in the market but employees (many of whom cannot pick and choose their employment or tolerate underemployment) do not have that right

Employees have the right to pick and choose their place of employment. They have that freedom, and tech workers drawing large salaries are especially employable today. If someone cannot tolerate unemployment, they can invest in making themselves more-valuable to would-be employers. And yes, that means that in the interim they need to choose between putting their head down/getting their work done and engaging in workplace activism. I don't think it is reasonable to feel entitled to everything all the time, which is how this comes off to me.

> They have not only a right, but an obligation to oppose actions by the corporation inimical to their worldview.

Employees have limited rights at work. They are being compensated to perform a limited role and the measure of their success/failure is up to the company compensating them. Corporations also have a right to oppose actions by employees that are inimical to their worldview or interests. They can do so by terminating that relationship.


Again, this is moral stance that you have, which I disagree with. As assumptions, yours include that the market captures incentives efficiently, that what people value and don't value is accurately represented by flow of money (and thus, of course, that those with more wealth available have more valuable values), and that people do not have the right to speak out against what they perceive as injustice if the market has decided that said injustice is efficient.

Again, corporations are made of people, and those people make decisions. Nothing is "up to the company" because the company is a group of people. People make the decisions.


This opening sentence

> Employees that bring politics to work are making the workplace uncomfortable for everyone else who has a different (or perhaps a more nuanced-) opinion, but can't speak up

is so important. The General Assembly of Occupy Wall Street paid some mind to it, but it's generally assumed that being apt and competent in forcefully communicating perceived issues is fully equivalent to having legitimate grievances and interests in the matters at stake.

This runs the spectrum from very shy/social anxiety/autism to has three kids/sick parents/too busy to worry about campus/homeowners' association/etc. politics.


> they would conduct petitions via anonymous voting mechanisms (e.g. internal surveys) that let all employees vote for/against/indifferent, so that a broad voice is heard and not just a skewed vocal minority that faces no consequence.

This is exactly what I want from petitions, online or otherwise. "Sign this if you agree" is not a good way to figure out what is best for all compared to "Do you agree or disagree".

There are so many petitions I see where I disagree with the petition, but the petitions aren't designed to include dissenting voices. Honestly, as a society we should reject all petitions that don't leave room for the representation of dissenting views.


That these same employees once again have created a media firestorm for their employers shows that Google was correct in demoting them (I would have fired them). They run to Wired because their role changes and they "lose" direct reports? These are not people that you want in your workplace. They are creating a toxic environment and Google is sending the right message to those of us that would rather get work done than play activist on the company's dime and brand.

Jasper_ 30 days ago [flagged]

Yeah, agreed. Much better to keep the guy sexually harassing your employees, and fire the people complaining to HR about it. /s


Time for tech to unionize


There was just a story today about NPM employees trying that and getting fired. Tech companies are in this strange place where on the surface they are seemingly going above and beyond to be tolerant, and diverse. But it's mostly talk and gestures that doesn't involve making any hard decisions or spending much money. Try to mention "unionization" and that thin veneer drops and the ugliness come out immediately.


Beyond being not remotely surprised at this, what constantly baffles me is: Why are they still there? And pending an answer to that: Why have they not walked out again?

Presumably the Walkout was a "fix this or we walk out" type of situation... but after Google refused to do 6/7ths of anything they demanded... they're still working for Google and not actively protesting. I would argue that Google called their bluff here.

A traditional protest against an employer, a strike, entails "give us this if you want us to return to work". Googlers walked out, made demands, and then walked right back in the door. Google said "we'll do one of the things you asked for because the rest of the industry was already going that way anyhow", and then refused the rest and everyone, for the moment, seems alright with this?


This (my) generation has been culturally conditioned against the idea of quitting a job... peers in struggling circumstances create a feeling of looming "economic uncertainty", there's a perception that forcing issues against employers means getting blacklisted, and social media placing wealth over values.

It's also a disseminate problem. Striking against long working hours is easy. Striking against corporate values that enable seemingly distant problems (surveillance states) while working on a friendly low-stress high-pay team... that's hard. Unless you actually care.

Maybe some people are learning they don't actually care... that their "values" were just shallow social posturing, worth less than their stable high-income...

Hopefully, though, some also realize tech is one of the few areas where workers still truly have the freedom to actually demand an ethical employer - which may involve looking elsewhere. Follow-through is always scary, but no worse than uprooting our lives moving to college and then again moving to big-tech cities.


This reads very strangely to me.

> This (my) generation has been culturally conditioned against the idea of quitting a job

This is a super bizarre claim. Wealthy Googlers are afraid to quit their job because of their peers who make a fraction of their pay? We're talking about Silicon Valley workers and somehow they are more afraid to quit their job than the previous generations? A common job strategy is to change jobs every two to three years.


Yes, exactly - it is bizarre. Tech pays very well with no culture of corporate allegiance, yet this generation of skilled in-demand labor with (hopefully) sizable bank accounts does not exercise their economic freedom.

Why?

Maybe fear of radical change and lacking support from peers, or maybe unawareness of what labor resistance actually entails... or, cynically, that their beliefs are spineless social posturing... but I couldn't think of any flattering reasons to walk-out then stay.


Sure, but I mean, if you have Google on your resume, you can work pretty close to anywhere, and a lot of other tech companies will pay competitively for you, right down the street. People should never just... quit without a plan, but six months later, it's hard to imagine that anyone who wanted to leave couldn't have found a new job by now if they were actively looking.


I wonder how participating in a walkout affects that reputation with hiring managers. Actually curious


For the named people organizing it, it probably does reduce their options a fair bit, though there are also companies who would hire for these kind of employees: As long as your company is on the straight and narrow, they're very engaged, enthusiastic, and public people.

Enough unnamed Googlers walked out that most probably would see no ill effects in their options due to having walked out.


Easy to say from the sidelines. Working at google means

- getting better benefits & pay

- being at one of the darling companies in the industry

Walking out is daring. Leaving is even scarier. I remember leaving my last job thinking, "I'll never work with as talented people." I was wrong, but it was a legitimate fear.


If benefits/pay and intelligent colleagues is what really matters to protesters and they are not looking to cut down on luxe lifestyle that Google job affords them. In that case they are really bullshitting about ethical issues because they have no qualm in partaking money that Google generate by ethically dubious decisions.


After my internship I certainly have that fear. It seems unreal that there could be a bunch of other companies out there that have the same calibre of people


There's little to no conviction behind most of these types of protests and employers know it. People have too much to lose. Especially Google employees who make a lot of money and likely have lifestyles that depend on said money.


And it's harder to get a job elsewhere, if your name is plastered all over the media, which say that you were organizing against your employer.


Because they expect to be able to have their cake and eat it too.


I'm wondering this too. A walkout might make sense if google was the only game in now. Clearly that's not the case - these are "smart" people with loads of options. Just quit if you actually mean business. Strange to expect to keep a FAANG salary and not do the "dirty" work.


It's called "protected concerted activity". It is protected under the national labor relations act. These laws were passed in the context of mine owners hiring armed mecenaries (the pinkertons for example) to break up strikes.


Microsoft employees tried to stand up against military contracts but got nowhere. If google does listen at all, eg with dragonfly, that's not nothing.


Seems unlikely that they would, or even would think they would be able to, go on strike as that requires resources beyond what most tech workers have access to.


It's called "protected concerted activity". It is protected under the national labor relations act. These laws were passed in the context of mine owners hiring armed mecenaries (the pinkertons for example) to break up strikes. I highly recommend "labor law for the rank and filer" as a history and primer on the law here.


>>what constantly baffles me is: Why are they still there?

Money. But if you ask them..."we're trying to chance the system from inside blah blah blah..." Google is not gonna forget all the bad press.


They should all quit. Then donate six months to Mozilla and find a way to kill AMP.



are employee 'walkouts' a protected class? Like a union on strike?


Don't they teach people not to bring politics to work anymore?

Rule #1 at work: don't talk or engage in politics


The current relization is that you often cannot work without being political because your work in some way is political.

In this specific instance, organizing a walk out, does seem to go much farther than what you would expect your employer to tolerate. Typical people who work typical jobs are fired for far less so the real suprise in being told that your 'role' is changing is that you still have a job at all.

Ultimently, I have little faith in these kinds of demonstrations - perhaps it will work for FAANGS since they have a pretty somewhat limitied supply of talent/employees. But for the majority of the tech industry, I expect the ability to choose where you work and the ability to organize unions will be a much more effective means of employee influence.


In this case it was Google who brought politics into the office. I don't understand why Google, or anyone with a choice, would have involved political hacks in the decision making process for ethics in their company's products.

Oh.. [0]

> Controversy followed almost immediately after the Heritage Foundation president was named to the eight-person council, with some speculating that her addition was Google's attempt to appease conservative lawmakers who have accused the tech giant of anti-conservative bias.

Look, I am sick of being politically correct about this. In modern times America's GOP true-believers have become the party of "alternate facts" on a variety of issues. Do you want your AI driver/doctor/accountant/climatologist to use alternate facts, or actual facts?

Aside from that particular argument, I don't think any dogmatic groups should be involved in AI in any way. People from political think tanks should be excluded by default, as they clearly have a bias. I don't care who they are, left/right/whatever.

[0] https://www.businessinsider.com/google-cancels-ai-ethics-boa...


[flagged]


that sounds like her old tgif fanfic.


Can you explain for non-googlers?


IIRC (and it's been 5 years since I left Google, and I didn't save any of her e-mails since they weren't mine to save), Claire Stapleton used to write internal employee communications around TGIF (that's the weekly Q&A session with executives). Meeting logistics like when & where, videoconferencing links, but also things like the agenda and list of speakers. Her writing had a very distinctive, very whimsical feel to it that was quite popular with many Google employees.


[flagged]


That's more handwaving and name calling than we're here for. Could you please increase the information-to-inflammation ratio when commenting in threads like this?

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


> Ending arbitration essentially means the senior VP will take all his severance package and leave the company. With arbitration high chance he wont get that.

I don't think this changes that much. If a lawsuit results in the company letting the VP go with cause, there will be no severance package. If the lawsuit fails but the company does not want the VP around anymore, they will let them go without cause, triggering the severance. With arbitration, it either lets the company sweep the incident under the rug, or if they let the VP go, it must be without cause, thus triggering the severance.


Yes. But the company does not want to go through the law-suite as it leads to brand damage.

Arbitration in most cases works far better as the company can let the VP go without any severance. The activists have their political biases against arbitration and hurting the cause.


Retaliation, while miserable for the people experiencing it, would be a positive sign that this kind of protest is having an effect.


>Google has a culture of retaliation, which too often works to silence women, people of color, and gender minorities

Are there more stories on this?


no because its not true.


[flagged]


You've been posting a flurry of unsubstantive and flamey comments. Could you please review the guidelines and stop?

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


This is a private company and more so the AI ethics and the context of the walkout is not really a criminal or civil violation in the eyes of the country. So the company is free to do anything it wants.


> This is a private company

Alphabet is a publicly traded company. Which means it is expected to uphold certain standards of behavior.


Screw Google and every other tech company on this list

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-Tech_Employee_Antitrust...


What these people are doing takes tremendous courage. Posts here over the last few months have many wondering why people in Facebook and Google are not speaking up and in this instance we have some genuine dissent, activism and protest at least on one issue.

But history shows dissenters are always a tiny minority, from the initial struggles that secured labour rights to equality for women. Most people will conform and fall in line for whatever reason, and in these cases there is unfortunately always resentment against the dissenters from those who fall in line.

In most other situations you would expect the early dissenters to get growing unequivocal support as more people find their compass and courage by example but there is a moral crisis in the software community and it looks these individuals may not get the widespread support they need.

But these kind of incidents will make it increasingly difficult for Google leadership and others who work there to go to events, meets and publicly talk about ethics and others issues these protestors raised.




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