Google rolled out new workplace policies and guidelines for internal communication last week, a response to employees who have pressed the company for months to address their concerns over workplace harassment. Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced the changes in a company-wide email that stressed the company’s effort to maintain its open culture while enforcing respectful communication among employees.
Current and former employees told Gizmodo that Google’s myriad mailing lists have become hotbeds of harassment and trolling, particularly in discussions about diversity in the tech industry, and that some employees who advocate internally for diversity and inclusion have been doxed. Several former employees have sued Google for harassment and discrimination. Google employees also partnered with shareholders last month in an effort to link executive compensation to diversity goals. The shareholder proposal was not approved, in part because Google executives hold a majority of the company’s stock, but the asset management firm backing the proposal viewed it as a way to convey to executives how seriously shareholders take diversity.
Google has a more communicative culture than many tech companies—employees can set up their own interest-based mailing lists and often communicate with each other on internal Google Plus and other messaging platforms. (These mailing lists are where former Google engineer James Damore circulated a memo in which he argued women were biologically less suitable for tech careers than men.) In an internal survey conducted this January, Google employees said that the level of respect in company-wide discussions had declined and that incivility on internal communication platforms was on the rise.
“The increase in complaints isn’t surprising. We’re talking about difficult things,” Google said in the newly-unveiled guidelines. “Googlers are using Groups to sometimes discuss deeply personal issues. And it’s hard to do so constructively in online forums as our community grows larger across the globe, often contributing to a feeling of impersonal rather than familiar, trust-based interactions.”
This is the first time Google has expressly acknowledged the growing toxicity of its internal communication platforms and the impact it has on employees.
Google’s new workplace policies, which clarify standards for harassment and make the HR response more transparent to employees, include a more detailed list of behaviours that qualify as harassment and give specific guidance about how employees should communicate with each other. The policy also gives workers more context about how HR investigates and resolves matters, and informs employees of their rights to discuss working conditions.
The new community guidelines put employees who administer mailing lists in charge of moderating the conversations that take place there—although Google says it will start providing moderation tools in the future. The guidelines also ask employees to be open to having their minds changed and to avoid making blanket statements about groups of people.
“Trolling, name calling and ad hominem attacks will not be tolerated,” the guidelines say. They continue: “It can help to be curious about—and acknowledge—the emotions that come up during a tough conversation. ... The goal should be to understand more, not to be right.”
New hires at Google will be trained on the policies as part of their onboarding process, while current employees are expected to read up on the policies.
A Google spokesperson said the changes were intended to provide clarity and boundaries while preserving the company’s open culture. Workers see the changes as a positive response to their advocacy—but Google has more work to do, they say.
“I’m hopeful that we will see our culture improve over the next few months,” said Liz Fong-Jones, a site reliability engineer who has worked at Google for a decade. “But it will take a couple of months to see it meaningfully shift.”
Google employees circulated a petition among their co-workers in February that asked executives to reschedule a town hall session on diversity that had been cancelled in the aftermath of Damore’s memo, to address the problems of employee doxing and harassment, and to be more transparent about how HR handles complaints. More than 2,600 employees signed the petition.
In March, petition organisers met with several Google executives, including Ruth Porat, Chief Financial Officer of Google parent company Alphabet, and Google’s vice president of diversity and inclusion, Danielle Brown, to address their demands.
In agenda notes for the meeting, employees wrote, “Googlers advocating for diversity and inclusion have had their lives threatened, personal locations exposed, been called racial epithets, told to die, had their emails phished, targeted for physical violence in YouTube videos, and have been undermined professionally. We’ve heard several stories from our co-workers about how they feel unable to even discuss diversity and inclusion at Google because they are afraid they will be targeted next. This is not acceptable.”
The meeting, and the new policies that followed, have left employees feeling somewhat hopeful about the future at Google after several gruelling months. But a number of concerns remain unaddressed—the town hall has yet to be rescheduled, and the policies do not address the problem of baiting. Google employees told Gizmodo in February that their peers often baited them by making offensive remarks under the guise of ‘just asking questions,’ with the intent of provoking an angry response.
Google could go further to protect its employees from this practice and to protect employees who have had their personal information published online, employees say. Some employees worry that the policies do not go far enough to protect marginalised workers and ensure their safety in the workplace.
“I believe that this policy carefully and delicately treads the line of not excluding any beliefs, in order to ensure that everyone working at Google feels able to be here, and be safe, regardless of what they believe. In an ideal world, that would be wonderful. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world, and we have employees in the company who believe that I should be dead,” Daniel Pittman, a Google engineer, wrote in an email. “I do not, and cannot, accept the implied equivalence of these viewpoints. So, to me, this reads as a very careful, sincere, and thorough effort to deliver a result that is, ultimately, useless in addressing actual workplace safety and comfort issues, by supporting those viewpoints, and treating them as worthy, and reasonable, things to debate.”