After a series of workplace lawsuits and divisive attacks between employees, Google has revised its internal code of conduct with more explicit rules against harassing coworkers, and for the first time, set guidelines on what people may post on the company’s internal online forums.
The new code of conduct also follows a petition demanding a safer workplace that gathered 2,000 employee signatures in three days when it was introduced in February; there are now 2,600 signers. The petition was organized by Google employees who support increased diversity at the company—many of them queer, transgender, or people of color who were targeted for harassment by coworkers. According to the company’s annual transparency report released this month, Google’s global workforce of more than 80,000 employees is nearly 70 percent male and 89 percent white or Asian.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced the changes internally last week in a company-wide email; details of the new policy were shared with WIRED by the petition organizers. The new guidelines instruct employees who run online forums to “play an active role in cultivating productive conversations.” The guidelines say Google may remove groups, as well as limit employees’ privileges on the internal discussions, for behavior that is disruptive or violates company values. The revamped rules specify that disclosing personal information about a Google employee to subject them to online abuse or harassment is prohibited, and could result in disciplinary action or termination.
A Google spokesperson said the company sought to clarify and formalize its policies after noticing incivility on all sides of internal debates around diversity and politics. The guidelines were based on feedback from employees and designed to remind employees to be civil with each other, so that Google could preserve the company’s open and transparent culture, the spokesperson added. The spokesperson also said the changes have been in the works since an employee’s memo criticizing diversity efforts at the company went viral last August.
Google’s culture has long loomed large in the Silicon Valley mythos because of its unusual openness. Even as the company grew into a multibillion-dollar giant, employees were encouraged to debate openly on internal message boards, meme generators, and mailing lists. But discussions around workforce diversity did not fare well in that environment, where the conversations increasingly grew toxic.
In January, Google employees told WIRED that a small group of coworkers was using these online forums to incite outsiders to harass them, and to goad them into inflammatory statements as way to “weaponize HR.” The harassment escalated in August 2017 after the memo from since-fired Google engineer James Damore emerged, with its now-infamous argument on biology, engineering, and gender. Screenshots from internal Google forums where employees criticized Damore appeared on Breitbart and other sites, as well in a lawsuit Damore filed in January alleging that Google discriminates against white men and conservatives.
The dynamic isn’t unique to Google. A Facebook engineer told WIRED that “alt-right tactics” to silence discussion around diversity are on the rise in Facebook’s online employee forums as well. Earlier this year, discussions around the diversity of Facebook’s board turned nasty, with deprecating comments about merit standards and questions over whether diversifying the board meant white men weren’t qualified, according to the employee. The employee, who asked not to be identified, said the discussion had alienated some women engineers. The name of a Facebook manager involved in the discussion, who is a transgender woman, was shared by Facebook employees on the anonymous app Blind, along with numerous derogatory comments about gender. “We’re on the trajectory to end up internally where Google is at,” the employee said, in the hope that Facebook would try to stop it before it gets to that point.
A Facebook spokesperson told WIRED they were aware of what happened on Blind after it was reported, but did not consider it bullying because the discussion resolved itself. A Facebook spokesperson added that the company has an open culture that encourages hard conversations, and has not received more complaints around discussions about diversity. “We have a zero-tolerance policy on harassment and have publicly shared our policy on bullying,” according to the spokesperson.
At Google, the employees behind the petition are pleased that the company is clarifying its policies and that the communication came from Pichai, but were concerned that the rules might still permit employees to manipulate Google’s open culture. The insistence that there are two sides to every issue ends up falsely framing hateful views as a conservative perspective, they say.
In the written agenda for a March meeting with Google executives, petition organizers wrote that some Google employees had been “directly threatened as a result of their coworkers leaking their private information online to hostile persons or organizations. 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.” The employees said some coworkers were afraid to discuss the issues for fear “they will be targeted next,” the agenda said.
The employee petition also asked Google to reschedule a town hall meeting on diversity that was canceled abruptly in August, after Pichai fired Damore. Pichai did not respond to the town hall request.
Liz Fong-Jones, a Google site reliability engineer and outspoken diversity advocate, said there are parallels between Google’s approach to moderating public discussions on its sites and the new internal policies. Fong-Jones says the written policy “bends over backward to avoid creating the appearance” that Google is not welcoming to conservatives, even though political ideology is not at stake. “A better phrasing might be that [employees] can’t attack the humanity of people.”
In a FAQ about the community guidelines, executives said the guidelines are not designed to silence internal discourse at the 20-year-old company. “The important aspect to consider is how you’re communicating your views—you should be debating the issue, not attacking the person. Your tone and words matter, especially in a workplace as uniquely collaborative as Google, and we want to continue to see a culture of constructive discourse in our interactions with one another,” the company wrote.