Google Puts Curbs on Political Debate by Employees
Google issued new guidelines limiting employee discussion of politics and other topics not related to work, in a major shift for a company that has long prided itself on open debate and a freewheeling internal culture.
unit said in a public memo on Friday that staffers should avoid spending time hotly debating matters unrelated to their jobs and refrain from name-calling, among other discouraged behavior. Google also said it would appoint employees to moderate the company’s famously raucous internal message boards, rather than allowing volunteers to do so—in effect acknowledging that the discussions have spiraled out of control.
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“This follows a year of increased incivility on our internal platforms, and we’ve heard that employees want clearer rules of the road on what’s OK to say and what’s not,” a Google spokeswoman said.
The new policy represents a significant about-face for Google. The tech titan helped pioneer the Silicon Valley idea of the workplace as a college-like campus where employees can express themselves freely on topics that are important to them.
The company’s internal message boards host thousands of discussion groups, on topics ranging from social issues to sports, and employees can spend hours a day sparring in them. In recent years, though, the level of debate at times has driven a wedge between staffers with opposing views as well as between management and an increasingly activist workforce.
Thousands of Google employees walked out last year to protest payouts to executives accused of sexual harassment, and some have objected to the company’s pursuit of government contracts.
Chief Legal Officer Kent Walker has threatened to fire workers poking around inside the company for information on contentious topics like Google’s cloud-computing relationship with the U.S. Defense Department, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month.
In its memo on Friday, the company reiterated that confidential information discussed internally should be kept private.
Two former Google employees, with opposing political views, said the changes overall will be jarring. One of those, a software engineer, said many employees were drawn to the company in part by its policies, including commitments to “do no evil” and “bring your whole self to work.”
“That was the price of admission. They’re changing the deal,” said the former employee. “It’s a radical departure on culture overnight.”
The new guidelines don’t forbid discussing politics at work but require managers to address conversations that become disruptive.
“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 say. “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.”
Google said it will launch a tool later this year for employees to flag content within internal discussions that doesn’t align with the new guidelines. Those reports would then be reviewed privately by members of the new moderation team.
The updated guidelines are Google’s latest attempt to dial back the company’s freewheeling discourse. Last year it warned employees that it would discipline anyone who discriminates or attacks colleagues or engages in discussions that are “disruptive to a productive work environment.” In those guidelines, Google also advised employees to avoid name-calling, including making blanket statements about groups or categories of people.
Google, which is based in Mountain View, Calif., and has more than 100,000 employees at offices around the world, has been buffeted by a series of controversies related to politics and social issues.
In 2017, it fired an employee who wrote an internal memo suggesting men are better suited than women for tech jobs. Last year, former female employees sued Google for allegedly discriminating against women, while former male employees sued it for allegedly discriminating against conservative white men.
Former Google engineer Kevin Cernekee told the Journal earlier this month that he believes he was fired in large part because he expressed conservative views on the company’s internal message boards.
Google told Mr. Cernekee in a termination letter that he was let go for multiple violations of company policies, including improperly downloading company information and misuse of the remote-access software system. A spokeswoman said the company enforces its policies without regard to political viewpoints.
The turmoil has drawn the attention of political figures—including President Trump—who have accused Google of bias toward conservatives. Mr. Trump last year complained on Twitter that Google search results for the words “Trump news” primarily displayed what he labeled “Left-Wing Media.”
Google’s latest changes, while seemingly made with good intentions, could inhibit dialogue among company employees, said David C. Logan, a senior lecturer on workplace management at the University of Southern California.
“Cultures of political correctness ironically can become unsafe places to work,” he said. “People need to be able to discuss what’s going on in the world. Communities are where you do that and the community where people spend most of their waking time is at the office.”
Other tech companies have also struggled to keep internal employee discourse from getting out of hand. Facebook in 2016 dismantled a popular anonymous discussion board for employees that had become a forum for conservative political debate that sometimes degenerated into racist or sexist comments.
The changes come at a time when employee activism is increasingly an issue in the tech industry.
Microsoft Corp. and Salesforce.com Inc. last year had to contend with employee unrest over their ties to the government. Microsoft employees demanded the company sever its work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement while Salesforce employees asked Chief Executive Marc Benioff to re-evaluate the company’s work with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency.
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