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Google is cracking down on its employees’ political speech at work

Under political pressure, the company is restricting its historically open work culture.

Google employees protest outside the company’s office in New York; one holds a sign that reads, “Ok Google really?”
Google employees in New York participated in a walkout on November 1, 2018, over how the company handled allegations of executives’ sexual harassment in the workplace.
Shirin Ghaffary is a senior Vox correspondent covering the social media industry. Previously, Ghaffary worked at BuzzFeed News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and TechCrunch.

Google announced new rules on Thursday about what employees are allowed to say in the workplace — including restrictions on political expression and guidelines on internal debates about company activity.

The new rules come as Google faces increasing scrutiny from politicians, the public, and its employees on a number of issues. Republicans, including President Donald Trump, continue to make unfounded accusations that the company’s products display a bias against conservatives. Employees on both sides of the political aisle have accused Google of retaliating against workers on the basis of their ethical and political beliefs. And internal debates over controversial projects, like a censored search engine for China, and company decisions, like how to moderate abusive content on YouTube, have created a growing rift between employees and leadership.

In an email sent to employees Thursday evening, Google CEO Sundar Pichai explained the company’s revised community guidelines, which now explicitly discourage workers from discussing politics on Google’s thousands of internal mailing lists and forums, several of which are devoted exclusively to discussing politics and related topics.

“While sharing information and ideas with colleagues helps build community, disrupting the workday to have a raging debate over politics or the latest news story does not,” the guidelines state. They warn employees that their primary responsibility is to “do the work” that they’ve been hired to do — “not to spend working time on debates about non-work topics.”

The new rules are a radical departure from how the historically open company has always functioned, and they demonstrate how seriously Google is confronting its ongoing struggle with internal dissent among its rank and file and external accusations of political bias.

Google has long been known for allowing and even encouraging employees to debate and organize around controversial topics, including its product launches and national politics. That’s caused problems for the company, particularly as it’s scaled in size in an increasingly polarized political climate.

Shortly after President Trump was elected in 2016, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said in an all-hands company meeting that he found the election “deeply offensive” as “an immigrant and a refugee.” He remarked that “many people apparently don’t share the values that we have.” Almost two years later, Breitbart News leaked video of that meeting, fueling conservative claims (including from President Trump himself) that the company is biased against Republicans.

Under the new policies, Google employees will be prevented from making statements that “insult, demean, or humiliate” the company’s employees, business partners, or “others” — including public figures. A Google spokesperson confirmed to Recode that those public figures would include elected officials such as Trump.

Employees won’t be allowed to engage in heated political debates that, for example, encourage or organize employees to vote for or against a specific candidate.

The company will also create enforcement mechanisms to police and discipline employees who don’t follow the new guidelines — including a “central flagging tool” where employees can report each other’s comments as inappropriate. A new team of internal community managers will then review these posts and help determine if they violate Google’s community standards. If they do, employees involved with the posts could face disciplinary action.

A spokesperson for the company said that in most cases, the company would first try to educate employees before disciplining them. Part of the community managers’ jobs will also be to work with moderators of internal listservs to help make sure those messages are following the new guidelines.

Google first introduced internal community guidelines to regulate discussion on its many internal forums and email lists last year. While some employees appreciated the guidelines and saw them as an attempt to limit harassment between colleagues, others criticized the move for forcing Google employees to respect uncivil speech from their colleagues on the basis of respecting all sides.

These new guidelines are similarly likely to raise concern with employees, particularly that they could stifle workers’ ability to speak out against Google’s own policies and practices. Last November, in what’s considered one of the largest moments of worker activism in the tech industry, 20,000 Google employees walked out of their offices to protest news that the company paid millions in buyout packages to executives who were accused of sexual harassment. And when employees raised concerns over controversial initiatives — such as Project Maven, Google’s plans to use its artificial intelligence to enhance US military drones, and Project Dragonfly, its efforts to build a censored search engine in China — Google eventually halted both projects.

The new guidelines state that employees “are all free to raise concerns and respectfully question and debate the company’s activities,” and that it’s “part of [Google’s] culture.” But at the same time, they warn employees that they’re forbidden from accessing or sharing “need-to-know” information or making “false or misleading statements about Google’s products or business.” Such guidelines reinforce the limitations on employees who engage in what they view as whistleblowing activity. (Projects like Maven and Dragonfly were not widely known within or outside the company until employees made them public.)

Reining in Google’s unique workplace culture is a leviathan task that no single set of community rules could accomplish all on its own. But the company’s new restrictions show Google knows it can’t simply dismiss the political controversies surrounding its workplace and products. The world, and politics, have changed since Google was founded 21 years ago. It seems Google decided it was time to change, too.

Here are Google’s revised community guidelines in full:

Community guidelines exist to support the healthy and open discussion that has always been a part of our culture. They help create an environment where we can come together as a community in pursuit of our shared mission and serve our users. Working at Google comes with tremendous responsibility. Billions of people rely on us every day for high-quality, reliable information. It’s critical that we honor that trust and uphold the integrity of our products and services. The following guidelines are official policy and apply when you’re communicating in the workplace.

Here are some key things to remember as you communicate:

  • Be responsible. What you say and do matters. You’re responsible for your words and actions and you’ll be held accountable for them.
  • Be helpful. Your voice is your contribution — make it productive.
  • Be thoughtful. Your statements can be attributed to Google regardless of your intent, and you should be thoughtful about making statements that could cause others to make incorrect assumptions.

1. When communicating, follow the three Google Values.

Respect the user, respect the opportunity, respect each other. Our Values govern how we conduct ourselves in the pursuit of our mission. We each need to own them personally; we all need to own them collectively.

2. Do your part to keep Google a safe, productive, and inclusive environment for everyone.

While sharing information and ideas with colleagues helps build community, disrupting the workday to have a raging debate over politics or the latest news story does not. Our primary responsibility is to do the work we’ve each been hired to do, not to spend working time on debates about non-work topics.

Avoid conversations that are disruptive to the workplace or otherwise violate Google’s workplace policies. Managers are expected to address discussions that violate those rules.

3. Discussions that make other Googlers feel like they don’t belong have no place here.

Don’t troll, name call, or engage in ad hominem attacks — about anyone. This includes making statements that insult, demean, or humiliate (whether individually or by reference to groups) other employees, our extended workforce, our business partners, or others (including public figures), or that violate other standards of conduct or policies against harassment and bullying.

4. You are responsible for your words and your reach.

What you say and do matters and can have lasting impact. Be respectful in your comments about (and to) your fellow Googlers.

As a Googler, your comments — wherever you make them — can have a serious impact on other Googlers, yourself, and our company. We’re all free to raise concerns and respectfully question and debate the company’s activities — that’s part of our culture. Be sure to speak with good information. Don’t assume you have the full story, and take care not to make false or misleading statements about Google’s products or business that could undermine trust in our products and the work that we do.

5. Treat our data with care.

Keep in mind that our communications can be rapidly and broadly disseminated. Do not access, disclose, or disseminate Need-to-Know or Confidential information in violation of our Data Security Policy.

You are responsible for adhering to these guidelines, our Code of Conduct, and other workplace policies. If discussions or behavior don’t align with this policy, managers and discussion owners/moderators are expected to intervene. If necessary we will remove particular discussion forums, revoke commenting, viewing, or posting privileges, or take disciplinary action.

Subject to local laws and policies, Googlers and our extended workforce may communicate about pay, hours, other work terms and conditions, or about any violation of law, although they may not publicly disclose confidential information other than as provided by law.

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