'Don't be evil' | Sacked Google staff say firm's mantra 'obliged them' to protest company actions

Sacked Google staff say firm's mantra 'obliged them' to protest company actions

Former Google employees, who claim they were sacked for calling out what they felt was company wrongdoing, say their activism was simply following the tech giant’s famous “Don’t be evil” mantra.

Metro has reported on a lawsuit filed in America on behalf of a trio of former Google software engineers, Rebecca Rivers, Sophie Waldman, and Paul Duke, who were fired in November 2019.

The tech behemoth claims they were fired for leaking confidential information. Metro reported that an internal Google memo, issued at the time of Rivers, Waldman and Duke’s sackings, said they were let go for “clear and repeated violations of our data security policies” including “systematic searches for information outside the scope of their job”, which they deny.

Instead, the cohort claim they were sacked for speaking out against company actions they didn’t agree with, such as a controversial cloud computing contract with the Trump administration’s Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) in 2019 – which has been linked to alleged human rights abuse at the US border points.

More interestingly, the trio claim they were unfairly dismissed because they believed they had a “contractual obligation” to speak out, due to Google’s “Don’t be evil” motto.

As reported by Metro, the lawsuit stated: “Google terminated each plaintiffs’ employment with it for adhering to the directive ‘Don’t be evil’ and calling out activity by Google that they each believed betrayed that directive”.

The court documents went on: “...each plaintiff fulfilled their contractual duty to Google by advising it… ways in which Google was ‘Doing evil’”.

The “Don’t be evil” slogan has been part of Google’s core policies since its foundation. However, in 2015, when the parent company rebranded itself to Alphabet, a new chief motto of “Do the right thing” was ushered in.

And, as reported by Metro, the latest Google Code of Conduct from September 2020, still states: “don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right – speak up!”

The company has so far not commented on the matter.

Row over Google’s political involvement heats up

It is not the first time Google employees have spoken out against the company.

In September, it was reported by Bloomberg, that one of the tech giant’s former employees, Laurence Berland, was fired in 2019 allegedly for violating Google’s data security policies. Much like Rivers, Waldman and Duke, Berland had also spoken out against Google’s political involvement.

He too took the firm to court for unfair dismissal, but an out-of-court settlement was reached, Bloomberg said.

Workplace activism on the rise

Recent statistics showcase how much employee activism is one the rise – so much so that a study by Weber Shandwick previously revealed that four in ten workers had spoken up to support or criticise their employers’ actions.

Similarly, law firm Herbert Smith Freehills highlighted the growing concern for employers when it comes to activism, as its Future of Work report found that 80% of companies expect it to rise.

Social media could certainly be a contributing factor, as the platforms offer employees the opportunity to express criticism of their firm. However, it could also be down to the new generation of workers – Millennials and Gen-Z.

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These workers are known to identify strongly with purpose and how a business aligns itself to employees’ own beliefs.

This is reflected in stats shared by Covestro, which found that roughly 70% of executives indicated that over the last five years they’ve seen an increase in the number of Millennials (71%), Gen Xers (69%) and Baby Boomers (46%) who want the opportunity for more social purpose work while on the job.

The flipside being that employees could feel like speaking out if they feel the purpose of the job they were hired for matches up to day-to-day machinations inside the organisation.

How HR can deal with activism

Employees may make a stand against their employer because they are disengaged or are simply responding to “a lack of open dialogue on change of behaviours or practices in organisations that could be interpreted as unfair, or incites inequality”, Andrea Smith, HR Director, Transformation UK&I at multinational beauty firm Coty, previously told HR Grapevine.

She said that to manage this within a workforce, HR teams should consider rolling out employee opinion surveys, which would allow staff to feel they are making a difference and contributing to policy changes, while also helping to mould a culture that is inclusive of everyone.

Smith explained: “A lack of accessible open dialogue in companies can quickly escalate to employees using external methods and platforms that can damage employer branding and reputation on corporate social responsibility.”

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However, while many cases have risen that suggest employee activism focussed either on an expression of personal beliefs and carries the freedom to express individual views, Coty’s HR leader stated that this type of behaviour should not be offensive or “incompatible with the dignity of others”.

As such, she warned that employers should ensure they have a clear code of conduct that applies to activism in the workplace. “Company code of conducts should be clear on rules, ethical principles and vision for your business,” she continued.

“A company code of conduct should also be transparently clear on employee standards and expectations that reflects the organisation's core values and overall company culture.”

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