Google employee activism on diversity, Pentagon contract is shaking up Internet giant
Corrections & Clarifications: Clarifies Mozilla ex-CEO Brendan Eich's support of a California gay marriage ban. SAN FRANCISCO — At Wednesday's shareholder meeting, a Google employee will step up to the microphone to argue that executive compensation should be tied to diversity goals. The push for a shareholder proposal opposed by parent company Alphabet marks a sharp escalation in the increasingly public disagreements between the Internet giant and some of its 80,000-plus staff. An employee revolt last week forced Google to back off a controversial and potentially lucrative military drone project. This week, employees are finding their voices again by joining shareholder groups to pressure Google to increase the racial, ethnic and gender diversity of its workforce. The activism is shaking up Google, which isn't used to being publicly challenged by its own employees. Liz Fong-Jones, a Google site reliability engineer, says she and a group of employees felt they had no choice but to take the unusual step of speaking out at the shareholder meeting after efforts to get management to address concerns proved unsuccessful. She hopes protest votes from concerned investors will motivate executives to make diversity a priority. "We had exhausted our resources internally, and we felt that, No. 1, we are legally able to do this without getting fired and, No. 2, it was the right tool to apply to this issue,” Fong-Jones told USA TODAY. “We are frustrated that executives don't really seem to have a clear strategy here. They don’t seem to have the right set of incentives and they, as a result, tend to pursue their other business objectives first and foremost and treat diversity and inclusion as an afterthought.” The University of Michigan's Chris White, co-author of Changing Your Company From the Inside Out, says the Google employees are part of a broader trend, the emergence of vocal — and frequently influential — activists who are agitating for change from inside their own companies. "What we are seeing with Google employees is that they are acting in line with their values, and they are demanding that their company be consistent with that," White said. This groundswell of activism comes as corporations from Apple to Target, which used to only wade into economic issues such as trade and taxes, stake out public positions on a range of social issues including gay rights and gun control. They're partially driven by their young workforce, as Millennials gravitate to jobs and products that align with their values. These appeals can backfire. In 2014, when Starbucks tried to promote a dialogue about race relations after the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner by asking baristas to write “race together” on coffee cups to stimulate conversation, the campaign that included "conversation starters" published in USA TODAY was widely criticized. Now, employees are grabbing their own social-media megaphones to embrace causes they care about. They persuaded General Motors, Ford and Chrysler to adopt domestic partner benefits and other corporations to reduce their carbon footprints, White says. And Nike cut ties with Bangladesh suppliers when lobbied by employees on unsafe working conditions. Activism has spread to the tech industry, too. In 2014, a handful of Mozilla employees helped force the resignation of then-CEO Brendan Eich amid public outrage that he gave money to an anti-gay marriage campaign. Former Uber engineer Susan Fowler helped topple CEO Travis Kalanick with her detailed account of a toxic and sexist workplace. Public accusations of sexual harassment and inappropriate treatment from women entrepreneurs triggered the ouster of venture capitalists from their firms. Google's not immune. Two former software engineers, Erica Baker and Kelly Ellis, spoke up in lengthy posts and on social media about the company's treatment of minorities and women. James Damore, the engineer Google fired after the leaking of his internal memo suggesting gender differences could explain why most of Google's engineers and leaders are men, attacked the Internet giant in the press and claimed in a lawsuit that it discriminates against white men and conservatives. Another flashpoint for the Internet giant: a high-profile and potentially lucrative contract with the Pentagon that some employees fear could be used to improve the targeting of drone strikes. More: Your personal data — what it is, and how to protect it More: Google employees say the company's not doing enough to protect them from harassment, threats More: Former Google preschool teacher alleges gender pay discrimination More: 'Alt-right' escalates war against Silicon Valley, pledges to expose bias against conservatives For much of its existence, what happened at Google stayed at Google. Internal dissent was mostly aired during weekly all-hands TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday) meetings or on internal message boards. In 2013, Googlers, as employees are called, sounded the alarm in emails and in company meetings over the decision to scrap Google Reader, a popular service for viewing content in a RSS reader. A year later, Google scrapped its requirement that people use their real names on its Google Plus social network after getting an earful from Googlers. And in 2015, hundreds turned out at company town halls and persuaded Google to roll back a ban that would have restricted publicly available nude and adult content on its Blogger service, without so much as a peep to the news media. Why are employees now breaking that unofficial code of silence? Growing disagreement with executives over business decisions and a belief that internal channels for employees to provide feedback to Google are no longer working. Case in point is the increasingly divisive debate over the lack of diversity at the predominantly white-and-Asian-male-staffed company. While Google touted the millions of dollars and hefty resources it is pouring into diversity initiatives, the reality in the workplace is far different for some women, people of color and others from underrepresented backgrounds. Four years after Google released its workforce demographics for the first time, attrition among women in the tech industry remains high, and the number of black and Hispanic tech workers has actually declined. Google hasn't fared much better. Not only has it made little progress, it’s being sued by former staffers and investigated by the Department of Labor for underpaying women.