Last November, Google made a promise to do better.
More than 20,000 employees around the world had walked out of the company’s offices to protest that Google had paid out over $100 million to multiple executives accused of sexual harassment in the workplace. In response, the tech giant apologized and said it would overhaul its sexual misconduct policies and that it would be more supportive of workers who raise concerns about problems at work.
But almost a year after the historic walkout, a dozen current and former Google employees told Recode that many employees are still justifiably afraid to report workplace issues because they fear retaliation. They say the company continues to conceal rather than confront issues ranging from sexual harassment to security concerns, especially when the problems involve high-ranking managers or high-stakes projects. And in a previously unreported internal document obtained by Recode, dozens more employees say that when they filed complaints with Google’s human resources department, they were retaliated against by being demoted, pushed out, or placed on less desirable projects.
A spokesperson for Google said the company is aware of the document but declined to comment on it or any specific cases of alleged retaliation. In a statement to Recode, Google Vice President of People Operations Eileen Naughton defended how the company handles misconduct claims.
“Reporting misconduct takes courage and we want to provide care and support to people who raise concerns,” Naughton said. “All instances of inappropriate conduct reported to us are investigated rigorously, and over the past year we have simplified how employees can raise concerns and provided more transparency into the investigations process at Google. We work to be extremely transparent about how we handle complaints and the action we take.”
After the retaliation document began circulating internally in late April, Google employees continued to use internal listservs to share similar retaliation cases related to sexual harassment and discrimination. In one anonymous mailing list dedicated to discussing mental health, at least seven stories about retaliation were shared in just the past few months, according to a source.
Since many employees are reluctant to report HR violations through official channels, they have turned to anonymous platforms like these mailing lists for communicating with their colleagues. But some unofficial platforms for candid discussions, such as a previously employee-run newsletter for sharing complaints, are now being overseen by HR, which sources say is making matters worse.
“In general, there’s a culture at Google where people were afraid to talk to HR — and in many cases for good reason,” Liz Fong-Jones, a former Google engineer and activist on internal company issues who said she faced retaliation for her activism, told Recode.
The document and interviews reflect a number of stories that have emerged from Google in recent months. Two Google walkout organizers said they were punished for their activism and left the company, a former designer published a viral memo that alleges she was discriminated against for taking maternity leave, and a former legal department employee reported being pushed out of her role at the company after having a child with Alphabet’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, who has been accused of having extramarital affairs with several employees, which is a violation of company policy. (Drummond denies these claims.)
Altogether, the interviews, documents, and published stories emerging from Google over the past year show how it is struggling on multiple fronts: As its own employees say Google is alienating them with how it mishandles workplace misconduct, it’s also the target of increasing antitrust scrutiny; the president and politicians on the right keep lobbing unfounded accusations of political bias against the company; and activists and employees are criticizing its controversial government contracts.
“How is this happening at Google?”
The 45 retaliation claims in the document that Recode reviewed were collected by employees over two weeks surrounding an employee organized anti-retaliation sit-in in late April. Only a few of these cases have been previously been shared publicly.
More than 60 percent of the claims of retaliation, or 28 cases, were related to harassment or discrimination by managers or colleagues. Six of the claims specifically involved sexual harassment as the reason for initial complaint, and one claim related to assault. The rest stemmed from issues with work culture, code reviews, and allegedly unethical workplace behavior at Google.
Nearly all of the claims in the document share a similar pattern. An employee would raise a concern internally to HR or their manager. After the employee reported the issue, they say they faced indirect punishment: negative performance reviews, demotions, or being dropped from desirable projects. In several cases, employees wrote that HR investigations dragged on for weeks or months without a conclusion, and meanwhile they were forced to continue working with their alleged harassers.
A Google spokesperson refuted these claims and said that if an employee who files an HR investigation is uncomfortable working in their current position while the investigation is open, the company can provide resources to help them move to a different position internally, when possible.
Several employees said they suffered mental health or other medical issues as a result of retaliation, which often negatively impacted their work performance. Many also reported seeing their career growth slow or outright stall after they raised concerns or reported mistreatment at work.
“Everybody’s cases are different — and everybody’s are horrifying,” said one Google employee who reviewed the document and said they have personally experienced retaliation at the company.
Some of the most high-profile employee retaliation claims Google has faced until now have centered around accusations of political bias. In 2017, James Damore, a former engineer, accused the company of discrimination after he was fired for writing and sharing a memo at work that perpetuated false gender stereotypes and argued that men are better suited biologically than women to work in tech. More recently, two former Google employees have also accused the company of being biased against conservatives and retaliating against them for their political beliefs. Although their complaints have largely been discredited, the accusations have fueled claims from President Trump and conservative media outlets that Google’s products are biased against conservatives, and in part caused the company to start setting stricter rules around what Googlers can talk about at work.
But most of the dozens of claims that Recode reviewed were not political. All but one of the retaliation claims listed in the document were not politically related. Instead, the cases dealt with issues such as managers sexually harassing employees or contributing to a hostile work culture.
One employee reported in the document that when they told their manager that a senior colleague was sexually harassing them, the manager allegedly said that they were “overreacting.” After subsequently opening an investigation with HR, the employee said their manager punished them for speaking out by denying them a promotion nomination from their peers. And after HR eventually found evidence that the employee had been harassed and retaliated against, the employee said they only offered “coaching” to their alleged harasser and manager, and allowed them both to continue working at Google.
“I was asked to accept this. I refused,” wrote the employee.
Another Google employee wrote that her boss, who allegedly called her an “emotional woman,” passed her over for a promotion due to gender bias. When she reported this to HR, she said was eventually moved to a different manager, but she continued to receive a lower salary compared to her male colleagues who she says matched her performance assessments. (Google has standardized categories of performance assessments, such as “Exceeds Expectations.”)
“My colleagues just keep telling me, ‘stay quiet and do your job,’” the female employee wrote. “‘Speaking out will just make things worse.’ How is this happening at Google?”
In another case, an employee wrote that they tried to raise concerns about “something unethical happening at Google.” In response, the employee alleges that HR delivered “a veiled threat” that their immigration status would be at risk if they continued to pursue the ethical concern.
“Fortunately, I was no longer dependent on Google for my immigration status,” the employee wrote. But, as the employee saw it, the case showed that HR was allegedly “leveraging personal vulnerabilities” of employees “to quash concerns, protect abusers and retaliate against those who speak out.”
A culture of containing damage
On paper, Google has a thorough and transparent process for reporting a claim about workplace misconduct. There’s no shortage of teams to go to: the HR department (called “People Operations”), an anonymous helpline, or management. And since the walkout, Google says it has tried to make it easier for employees: It has put resources on a single internal landing page, spun out a new Investigations Care Team to guide employees through the process, and provided more granularity in its annual internally shared reports on misconduct investigations.
But the current and former employees Recode interviewed said that often, filing a claim made things worse because it would result in punishment from management or HR. Their accounts echo those of other higher-profile Google employees who have recently left the company, including walkout organizers Meredith Whittaker and Claire Stapleton, engineer and activist Liz Fong-Jones, and Jack Poulson, who quit the company over ethical concerns about the company’s formerly secret project to build a censored version of its search engine in China, nicknamed Project Dragonfly.
After the walkouts, Whittaker reported being told to “abandon” her work on AI ethics in order to keep her job, and Stapleton said she was “ignored” by her manager, demoted, and encouraged to go on medical leave even though she wasn’t sick.
“The accounts that Claire [Stapleton] and I had were echoed in a number of others. There was an outpouring of stories,” Whittaker told Recode. (Whittaker helped organize the anti-retaliation town hall where employees shared their concerns.) “If you actually want to stop things like sexual harassment, you need to address retaliation first. Because if most people who report are retaliated against, no one is going to trust the process,” she said.
Fong-Jones said that after she penned a public resignation letter in February criticizing Google’s culture, HR forced her to leave the company sooner than the six-week time frame she had already agreed upon with her manager, citing a policy she had never heard of before.
“They basically made up a fake policy over the objections of my management chain, who wanted to keep me around,” said Fong-Jones. “I suspect it was because of my labor organizing.”
Poulson told Recode that when he resigned after unsuccessfully escalating his concerns about Project Dragonfly, management offered him a deal: If he stayed quiet about his reason for quitting, his “politics would be forgiven” and the door would always stay open for him to return to the company.
But unlike these more prominent Googlers, most employees at the company don’t have an international cause to rally behind or the support of powerful human rights organizations. They’re fighting smaller battles, ones about often career-ruining personal injustices, like being harassed or bullied by a manager, and feel powerless to find a course of retribution.
“It’s those lesser-known people I worry about,” said Fong-Jones.
“The pattern that I see is this gaslighting; trying to make people feel that, ‘oh, nothing’s actually changed, you’re imagining this, this is normal, nothing bad is happening,’” one current employee told Recode, in reference to the claims in the retaliation document. “It’s an attempt to make you feel ungrounded in your own reality.”
Cracking down on speech
As Google has faced intense pressure to address its growing controversies from outside and within, the company that’s always been known for its open work culture has started clamping down on employees’ speech. One of the reasons Google employees have been so public about their complaints about their employers is undoubtedly because the company has a standard of openness to defend. One source characterized Google as historically being the “least bad” in the pool of other major tech companies in terms of the liberty it gives its employees. But they worry that it is changing.
In August, the company released a new set of community guidelines, warning employees that their primary responsibility is to “do the work” they were hired to do and “not to spend working time on debates about non-work topics.” The new rules were a stark departure from how Google once encouraged radical transparency in the office well beyond the confines of coding. The new guidelines prompted some employees to worry that they could be used to silence worker dissent. The company has said that employees are still allowed, per federal labor law, to communicate about workplace issues — but it’s not clear how exactly they will enforce that when it comes to internal pushback about controversial company projects that are inextricably tied to politics.
And in May 2018, the company’s HR department took control of a previously employee-run, widely read newsletter called “Yes, at Google.” The newsletter was originally created a year prior by an employee to affirm in the face of skepticism that “yes,” even at a company like Google, employees dealt with discrimination and that the company had room for improvement.
“I definitely read it every week,” Poulson told Recode. “It was a grassroots newsletter that served as a thermometer for the level of harassment.”
But when the employee who created the newsletter transitioned ownership of it to HR, many employees worried the claims they shared would no longer be anonymous and that HR was omitting or downplaying negative stories.
Google denies these claims and says it took over at the request of the employee who created the newsletter because she no longer had the bandwidth to maintain it. But the move exacerbated employees’ concerns that management at Google censors honest feedback and tries to bury internal controversies without fixing problems at their root.
Current and former employees told Recode that HR’s involvement effectively ended the newsletter’s usefulness. “Once HR took it over, that promise of anonymity would no longer count,” Fong Jones said.
A spokesperson for the company told Recode that even when the newsletter was employee-run, HR would de-anonymize submissions that it was required to investigate, such as ones that dealt with serious accusations around workplace harassment.
Regardless of the circumstances behind the change, an internal study by an internal employee research group proved that once HR starting running the newsletter, employees submitted fewer stories. The shift supports what employees told Recode — that they don’t trust HR to be on their side and they’re afraid to report harassment and other issues for fear of retaliation. The study, which Recode reviewed, is titled “The Quantitative Effect of Governance Transfer on Yes, at Google” and was conducted by a team that regularly researches topics related to engineering productivity at the company. The study found that HR taking over the newsletter “negatively and substantially affected submission volume” of employee anecdotes.
But the real issue isn’t what Google employees are or aren’t “allowed” to say on internal listservs, it’s about what happens when employees report a problem and whether management actually listens to them.
Google’s struggle with how to handle internal complaints isn’t new. Back in 2015, when Erica Joy Baker, a former Google engineer and current engineering manager at Microsoft, and some of her coworkers created a spreadsheet for employees to self-report their salaries to better understand potential pay inequalities for minorities and women, she said her manager punished her by withholding several bonuses her peers had nominated her for. Baker doesn’t blame her former manager, who she says was getting pressured by people above her. Instead, she takes issue with Google’s top-down culture that suppresses meaningful employee pushback — even in areas the company says it’s trying to improve on, like diversity.
“I believe that’s the way that Google works and [that’s] the politics of Google,” Baker told Recode. “It’s hard to change. That way of being is in the fabric of the company.”
This sentiment was echoed by several sources who were pessimistic about management’s leadership choices, particularly when executives like Drummond, who have been accused of exploiting their power and have been shielded from discipline, are still in charge.
When asked if Google’s culture has improved since the walkout, one employee said that he was happy to see the company make major concessions like ending forced arbitration and raising the minimum wage for contractors to $15 an hour. But he also said he feels haunted by the continued stories of retaliation he hears from his colleagues — particularly those involving sexual harassment.
“There’s the image of Google, and the reality of Google,” he said.