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Google vs. Google: How Nonstop Political Arguments Rule Its Workplace

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 5/1/2018 Kirsten Grind, Douglas MacMillan

Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, flew to Silicon Valley earlier this year for a long-planned speech to Google employees. It wasn’t until she sat waiting in a parking lot that a call came through notifying her the event was canceled.

Ms. Newkirk had been invited by some employees to discuss her view that animals can be subject to prejudice just as people can, as part of the company’s “Talks at Google” series. Another group of employees said the topic was offensive to humans who face racism, and they protested.

“Google has these values, and with our talks, we have to align with these values,” a Google employee told Ms. Newkirk, according to a transcript of the call.

Such is the climate inside the tech giant, where fractious groups of employees have turned the workplace into a virtual war zone of debate over all manner of social and political beliefs. Google has long promoted a work culture that is more like a college campus—where loud debates and doctrinaire stances are commonplace—and today its parent, Alphabet Inc., is increasingly struggling to keep things under control.

“Activists at Google” helped organize a rally critical of President Donald Trump’s policies. “Militia at Google” members discussed their desire to overturn a prohibition on guns in the office. “Conservatives at Google” allege discrimination against right-leaning job candidates. “Sex Positive at Google” group members are concerned that explicit content is being unfairly removed from Google Drive file-sharing software.

“Googlers For Animals” invited the PETA president, only to be undercut by members of the “Black Googler Network.”

Google’s broad corporate culture has long leaned Democratic, and that’s reflected in internal debates that often pit left-wing causes against each other. Donations by its employees to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign outnumbered contributions to President Trump’s campaign 62 to 1, and former Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt helped the Clinton campaign with data analysis. Less numerous, but increasingly voluble, are groups of conservative employees reacting against what they see as a Google’s political orthodoxy.

Beyond the internal debates are lawsuits, several since late last year, including legal actions from female employees alleging pay discrimination against women; from male ex-employees and potential new hires claiming bias against conservative white men; and from a transgender engineer who said he was fired for making derogatory statements about what he called white male privilege. All this comes on top of a very public controversy last August when Google fired a software engineer, James Damore, who wrote an internal memo saying gender differences might have something to do with women’s under-representation in the tech workforce.

Politicians, media and consumer groups are raising questions about how giant tech platforms such as Google, Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. make difficult decisions on issues of free speech that potentially affect billions of users.

Google, a crucial part of the internet’s behind-the-scenes police force, is struggling simultaneously to curate a cacophony of voices within its own abode and to define what is allowed in search and on YouTube. Google engineers are increasingly trying to refine the algorithms that block content for being hateful, extremist or dangerous, moves that also have triggered complaints of bias.

A Google spokeswoman said the last-minute quashing of Ms. Newkirk’s talk is seen internally as a failure to properly vet speakers. Since the cancellation, Google has formed a group of employees whose job is to review speakers in advance. Google also has published new guidelines for acceptable content in Talks at Google. Her speech would be prohibited under the new rules, which aim to make all employees feel included, said the Google spokeswoman.

Many companies have struggled to strike a balance between employees’ right to share their opinions and the maintenance of a cordial and equal workplace. In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Facebook dismantled an internal discussion board for political debate after it degenerated into racist and sexist comments, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Some companies have decided it is counterproductive to let employees form affinity groups. The accounting firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd. is taking the unusual step of opening up some women-only programs to men.

The dilemma is especially striking at tech companies, which typically cast themselves as open meritocracies. Googlers, as employees are called, are encouraged to think of themselves as entrepreneurs and to “bring their whole selves to work,” a motto used widely on campus to promote inclusion.

“Google has created a level of entitlement which is hard to claw back,” said Jim Miller, a former vice president who left earlier Google this year to run a startup. “People feel that it’s OK to debate everything.”

In 2008, a Google chef generated an online debate, with more than 100 comments on Google’s internal message forums, by serving a “Free Tibet Goji Chocolate Cream Pie” in the cafeteria, a reference to the political movement opposing China’s rule of the Asian region. The chef initially drew a suspension, which another manager at Google overturned on the free-speech grounds, according to Laszlo Bock, who wrote about the flap in a book about the company culture called “Work Rules!”

Google’s employee intranet is filled with tools enabling its 80,000 employees to broadcast their opinions. A software tool lets anyone nominate a question for a “TGIF” meeting each Thursday and vote on which questions are asked of top executives.

Employees can choose from thousands of email discussion groups, on topics including juggling and polygamy. And on a tool called Memegen, pop culture images are overlaid with sardonic commentary, often poking fun at recent controversies. “Do you ever wish you were a corporation or a fetus so Republicans would finally treat you like a human being?” read one meme posted after the 2016 election.

At a recent Google event titled “Living as a Plural Being,” one employee gave a talk explaining why the speaker sexually identified as “a yellow-scaled wingless dragonkin” and an “expansive ornate building,” according to the suit from Mr. Damore, the fired software engineer.

Mr. Damore’s memo and resulting dismissal last summer, besides stirring criticism outside the company, ignited frenzied debate inside it. Some employees accused Google of wrongly firing an employee for expressing himself; others said the company hadn’t done enough to stand up for gender equality. Debates inside Google have flared up on email lists and Memegen ever since.

“They think they can please everybody, and I don’t think that’s possible,” said Tim Chevalier, the transgender former engineer, who alleges he was fired because of his statements against discrimination. Mr. Chevalier said in his February suit he was harassed and bullied on the internal message boards, with little company intervention.

Asked about his claim, the Google spokeswoman, Gina Scigliano, said, “An important part of our culture is lively debate. But like any workplace, that doesn’t mean anything goes.”

A shooting early last month at the headquarters of Google’s YouTube unit, in which a woman with a pistol wounded three before taking her own life, led one Googler to propose the company let staff members with gun permits carry weapons to the office, according to an employee who saw the post. Initially sent to the “Militia at Google” email list, the post prompted hundreds of email replies and Memegen posts debating the idea of an armed workforce, the person who saw it said. The head of security at Google reaffirmed its no-gun policy.

Also last month, some employees circulated a petition asking the company to withdraw from a program aimed at helping the U.S. Defense Department identify and track potential drone targets through artificial intelligence, according to a person who saw the petition. Google is competing with rivals including Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft Corp. for a multibillion-dollar contract to move the Pentagon’s data into the cloud.

A Google spokesman said the Pentagon currently uses its technology only to recognize objects and help “save lives,” not for launching weapons.

Google now is considering a new ethical review process before taking on government contracts, a step that also has struck some at the Googleplex as improper. One employee objected to rank-and-file employees having power to influence business deals.

As the internal political battles have begun to seep out into public view and even threaten to affect Google’s business, as in the defense-contract matter, Google has started trying to find ways to shut down controversy.

While Google’s intranet forums usually are overseen by employee volunteers, the company says its human-resources staffers can investigate complaints by reviewing message boards and in some cases punish employees based on posts found there. The memo that got Mr. Damore fired, distributed on a “Skeptics at Google” email list, breached the code of conduct “by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace,” Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said in a letter to employees about the incident.

Google executives are preparing to issue a new set of guidelines around what can and can’t be said on internal forums, people familiar with the matter said.

Each year, Google invites hundreds of actors, authors and other luminaries to give talks. While a small team approves speakers, suggestions come from staffers throughout the company, who then typically organize the talks.

Engineer Dan Hackney was expecting a fight when he proposed a talk by Alex Epstein, an author who has criticized the renewable-energy movement. The visit stirred debate on campus but ultimately went off without a hitch in August. “To me, that signaled the company was willing to bring people with controversial ideas,” Mr. Hackney said.

Later, however, after Google fired Mr. Damore for his memo questioning women’s fitness for certain jobs, Mr. Hackney left Google. “I was worried about my ability to express controversial ideas without it negatively impacting my career,” he said. Google had no comment on that.

PETA’s Ms. Newkirk was slated to give her talk on Jan. 18. A software engineer, Lucas Freitas, had set her visit in motion months earlier, writing to PETA that “people in our Googlers For Animals group discussed and are very excited about having Ingrid come!”

Ms. Newkirk, 68, is a lightning-rod figure as head of an organization known for radical activism. In one of her best-known protests, she ran across a field in Pennsylvania with other PETA members to stop the sport shooting of hundreds of pigeons, a move that landed her in jail for 15 days. The pigeons survived.

Ms. Newkirk spoke at Google six years ago. This time, she planned to build on PETA’s view that animals are no different from people and should have the same rights, she said in an interview. The talk would be titled “How The National Conversation on Racism Affects PETA’s Fight for Animal Rights.”

She planned to show a video in which RZA, the Wu-Tang Clan hip-hop artist and outspoken vegan, transforms from a black man into an Asian woman and eventually into a bear and a chicken. “It doesn’t matter if we have fur or feathers or fins, the length of our nose or the number of legs,” RZA says in the video’s voice-over. “We’re not different in any important way.”

A pamphlet Ms. Newkirk planned to distribute to those attending shows pictures of a cow, a chicken and a bunny with the heading “How Bigotry Begins.” The talk was canceled about an hour before it was to begin, with goodie bags ready and the auditorium already starting to fill.

Ms. Newkirk, still in the parking lot, insisted she be allowed to come in and speak with someone about the situation. Mr. Freitas, the employee who invited Ms. Newkirk, was with her, and eventually received a call from a Google employee. The call, which Mr. Freitas put on speakerphone, was captured by Ms. Newkirk’s audio assistant, she said.

“There was, like, a sort of outcry in response” to the prospect of the talk, said the Google employee, David Barry, according to a transcript reviewed by the Journal. “And the last thing that Google wants, that we want to do, is to make people, like, feel alienated, or hurt people, like, who voiced concern over this talk,” said Mr. Barry, whose LinkedIn profile describes him as an associate account strategist at Google.

Mr. Barry didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The move blindsided Mr. Freitas. He texted a PETA official saying “Google’s really high ups” had made the decision and “this sucks,” according to a copy of the text messages provided by PETA. Mr. Freitas didn’t respond to a request for comment.

a close up of a sign © Illustration: Siemond Chan/The Wall Street Journal

Ms. Newkirk repeatedly emailed Google executives but wasn’t given more of an explanation of what happened. She said she is still perplexed about the incident. “It’s the most anti-racist talk you’ll ever hear,” she said.

The Google spokeswoman said an employee working on Talks at Google on a volunteer basis unilaterally made the decision to cancel the talk. She wouldn’t identify the employee.

Write to Kirsten Grind at kirsten.grind@wsj.com and Douglas MacMillan at douglas.macmillan@wsj.com

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