Two Google employees who helped to organize a labor walkout estimated to involve 20,000 workers in protest of the company’s mishandling of sexual harassment and assault cases in November 2018 have claimed Google retaliated against them, according to Wired.
Wired wrote that Meredith Whittaker of Google’s Open Research artificial intelligence project and YouTube marketing manager Claire Stapleton said that they faced professional consequences as a result of helping organize the event. In a letter posted to internal Google mailing lists obtained by Wired, Whittaker wrote that shortly after the company disbanded an AI ethics council, she was told her role would “change dramatically” and that she would have to abandon her work for a New York University research institute:
Just after Google announced that it would disband its AI ethics council, I was informed my role would be changed dramatically. I’m told that to remain at the company I will have to abandon my work on AI ethics and the AI Now Institute, which I cofounded, and which has been doing rigorous and recognized work on these topics. I have worked on issues of AI ethics and bias for years, and am one of the people who helped shape the field looking at these problems. I have also taken risks to push for a more ethical Google, even when this is less profitable or convenient.
Stapleton wrote in the letter that two months after the walkout, Google informed her she “would be demoted, that I’d lose half my reports, and that a project that was approved was no longer on the table.” She added that when she escalated the issue to human resources and a vice president, it “made things significantly worse”; Stapleton wrote she was instructed to take medical leave even though she was not ill.
While Stapleton contacted a lawyer and had the demotion reversed, she concluded she still feels as though Google is a hostile workplace environment:
After five years as a high performer in YouTube Marketing (and almost twelve at Google), two months after the Walkout, I was told that I would be demoted, that I’d lose half my reports, and that a project that was approved was no longer on the table. I escalated to HR and to my VP, which made things significantly worse. 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. Only after I hired a lawyer and had her contact Google did management conduct an investigation and walked back my demotion, at least on paper. While my work has been restored, the environment remains hostile and I consider quitting nearly every day.
The two added in the letter that they had collected over 300 stories of retaliation at Google during the walkout, writing people who “stand up and report discrimination, abuse, and unethical conduct are punished, sidelined, and pushed out.” They also announced plans for a town hall-style meeting to address the issue and asked other Google workers to share their own stories of retaliation.
“I think it’s pretty straightforward,” software engineer and fellow walkout organizer Amr Gaber told the New York Times. “Google has never treated them this way, and then the walkout happened. Now they’re having to deal with being told their work is no longer valuable.”
The original walkout followed a Times article that revealed Google had organized a $90 million exit package for Android OS creator Andy Rubin, who was leaving the company amid allegations of sexual harassment. Though the company later apologized and said it had fired dozens of people for similar misconduct in the past few years without exit packages, the Times wrote, the incident drew further attention to other employee demands like an end to mandatory arbitration in labor disputes, pay equality, better sexual harassment and misconduct reporting and transparency guidelines, and an increased role for its chief diversity officer.
Employees including Whittaker and Stapleton called for a one-day walkout—which indeed happened, drawing an estimated 20,000 staff across the U.S., Europe, and Asia on Nov. 1, 2018. Shortly after, Google terminated its mandatory arbitration policy in cases of sexual harassment (and earlier this year, said it would end arbitration agreements on all issues in employee contracts).
In a statement to multiple media outlets, a Google spokesperson denied allegations that any employee had been retaliated against for their role in the walkout, writing “We prohibit retaliation in the workplace, and investigate all allegations. Employees and teams are regularly and commonly given new assignments, or reorganized, to keep pace with evolving business needs. There has been no retaliation here.”
The full letter is available to read over at Wired. Gizmodo has reached out for further comment from Google, and we’ll update if we hear back.