Google's Secret Class System

Illustration for article titled Google's Secret Class System

Life in the Googleplex has a fairy tale allure: gourmet food! Ski trips! Giant dessert statues popping up out of nowhere every six months! And if working for the company seems like some alternaworld fantasy dreamscape, well, it kind of is. Just not, it turns out, for everyone.

Google drones work under a caste system: employees wear different colored badges to indicate their status. That's not new or surprising, and doesn't really mean much, other than that you can spot a Google intern (literally) a half a mile away. They're the ones in green. White badges are full-timers, and red badges—numbering in the thousands—are contractors. And then, as Andrew Norman Wilson found, when working as a Google contractor from 2007-2008, there are the yellow badges. A class of employee that exists largely apart from the rest of the Google hive, sequestered to building 3.1459~, denied the benefits that nearly everyone else shares in.

Wilson's video-cum-art installation "Workers Leaving the Googleplex" shows the comings and goings of this fourth class, a group that's apparently denied access to the company's outsized privileges. Their jobs? To scan books, page by page, for Google Book Search. Menial, repetitive contract labor, sure, but certainly not any less so than that performed by the red-badged custodians and kitchen staff. So why are they cordoned off? Wilson decided to find out:

I was outside the Google Book Search building, which is adjacent to the building I work in, and had the chance to talk to a few employees while they were leaving work. Most of them are people of color and are supposedly involved in the labor of digitizing information. I'm interested in issues of class, race, and labor, and so out of general curiosity I wanted to ask these workers about their jobs.

His attempts to interview, film, and discover were stymied early on; Google security stopped him, and reportedly the company pressured his bosses to terminate his employment. Which, soon after the incident, they did.

You'll notice that Wilson tilts his lance unsteadily at race and class as the underlying reason why the yellow badges don't get to join in Google's reindeer games. That seems unlikely, frankly, and it's hard to feel too bad for people with reliable jobs just because they don't get to ride a limo shuttle home. There are also other factors—the secrecy of the Google Books project, the menial nature of the job itself—that I'm sure weigh more heavily in the decision to silo these men and women.


But there's a larger point about Google itself here, about a company whose entire image is built on how it treats its workers—even the contracted ones. After all, all contracted employees are expected to adhere to Google's Code of Conduct. Which, by the way, makes it perfectly clear that everyone should share the same advantages:

We are committed to a supportive work environment, where employees have the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. Each Googler is expected to do his or her utmost to create a respectful workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination of any kind.


And even though no one's entitled to the kinds of perks Google offers—the kinds that most of us can only dream about—if you're going to offer them at all it seems only right to do so universally. When you don't, you create an artificial class system, inherent bias. That erodes Google's stated values. It cuts the worst kind of corners. And while that's not doing evil, it's certainly not good. [Andrew Norman Wilson; Thanks, Andrew!]


This article uses ambiguous, and sometimes conflicting, language to describe the classes of people who work at Google.

Contractors are not employees of Google. They are employees of a contracting company or of their own consulting business. In either case, it is not unusual nor surprising that a contractor would not be subject to the same benefits as an employee.

On the subject of the yellow badged people, one sentence in the article describes them as employees, and a later sentence describes the work they do as contracted. Which is it? Are they contractors or employees? It makes a difference.

As to Google's statement: "where employees have the opportunity to reach their fullest potential." Again, it references employees. Contractors aren't employees. While Google may require contractors to adhere to the employee code of conduct, that does not mean that contractors are subject to employee benefits.

By definition, a contractor is there to do a specific task with a defined end date (usually a year or less). If you have contractors on for much longer than that, you'll end up getting sued for those positions not being full employees.