Silicon Valley has a lot of stereotypes: free snacks, big salaries, bad slide decks, and perhaps most of all, its workplace culture. That culture can be praised or mocked in a lot of ways, one of the more generous being that the people who work there are encouraged to be themselves. Google may be the ultimate example of that approach to managing a workforce. Freedom has long been its offices’ most paramount value—the freedom to express yourself, to criticize the company, to debate, to have fun, to wear whatever you want, to think creatively, and to reach your fullest potential. And it has long been understood to serve Google’s mission of creating innovation after innovation. That’s why news that the company has decided to clamp down on this freewheeling culture is so important and revealing: It marks a new era for tech’s most mythologized workplace. And it suggests that the myth has always left out some of the shortcomings of life inside Google.
Google employs nearly 99,000 people and has more products and projects underway than most people within the company could probably count. That unbridled growth is, in part, a reflection of a culture that aimed to install as few speed bumps for exceptional people as possible. As former CEO Eric Schmidt put it in a 2014 book he co-authored with Jonathan Rosenberg, a former Google senior vice president, “Great people are often unusual and difficult, and some of those quirks can be off-putting. … As long as people can figure out a way to work with the divas, and the divas’ achievements outweigh the collateral damage caused by their diva ways, you should fight for them.” Employees were encouraged to be their true, unfiltered selves on internal social forums as long as they were harnessing that energy to help Google succeed.
But in recent years, this culture has led to a number of high-profile collisions within the company. There was the controversy following the 2017 firing of James Damore (who wrote and circulated a memo that suggested female engineers were less capable than their male counterparts). Following internal outcry over the Damore memo, diversity advocates within Google have had their names and personal information posted to far-right sites, leading to threats, doxing, and harassment. In August of this year, Kevin Cernekee, a former Google engineer, claimed that he was fired for advocating for free speech and was “bullied” for his conservative views, though his communications reportedly included defending neo-Nazis and trying to rally others to fundraise for Richard Spencer. All that room to be your fullest self may have led to great products, but it has also given some Google employees room to say and do awful things—something no company wants happening at its water cooler, digital or otherwise.
Companies also don’t love collective action that publicizes internal problems, certainly another product of Google’s culture. For example, the 20,000-person-strong walkout protesting a pattern of sexual harassment within the company was organized using Google tools. At some point amid all of this, for better or worse, Google decided it could no longer fight for 99,000 people’s “diva ways.”
On Friday, CNBC obtained and published a memo that was sent to all Google staff. “Working at Google comes with tremendous responsibility,” the memo opened. “Billions of people rely on us every day for high-quality, reliable information. It’s critical that we honor that trust and uphold the integrity of our products and services,” going on to add that workers should strive to be responsible, helpful, and thoughtful with their words.
The memo then takes a sharp turn, going on to outline what employees can talk about at work: “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. 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.” Where previously Google encouraged its employees to speak their minds, now the company seems to be suggesting that acting out could lead to punitive action. “Managers,” the memo says, “are expected to address discussions that violate those rules.”
The memo also implores Googlers not to “troll, name call, or engage in ad hominem attacks–about anyone.” And while employees are free to raise concerns, Google is now instructing that those concerns should only be raised with “good information,” warning employees not to “assume you have the full story, and take care not to make false or misleading statements about Google’s products or business that could undermine trust in our products and the work that we do.”
Google’s reckoning with its internal ethos has been a long time coming. Yes, the philosophy of dedicating one’s time to thinking freely and not just getting your work done was a runway for many people to dream up and develop some of the most important features of the internet today. But not everyone thrived in such a wild workplace—and to some, mostly women and people of color, Google’s culture could be hostile.
There was the time Schmidt reportedly confused a black female engineer for an executive assistant, and numerous reports of men receiving generous exit packages even after claims of sexual assault and harassment against them were found credible. In my own reporting on the company over the past two years, multiple women have told me that when they raised issues about sexually inappropriate behavior from their bosses, Google was dismissive of their complaints—a widely reported pattern. In 2017, the Department of Labor even launched an investigation into whether the company was systemically underpaying women compared to men. Even after years of attention to the issue, Google’s diversity figures remain abysmal. In 2019, the company’s tech workforce is only 2.8 percent black and just over 25 percent women. As much as the freedom to say what you want on a message board is important to Google, all of these things have been part of the workplace culture, too.
In a way, Google’s pervious philosophy reflected the way a lot of people used to think about the internet: an anything-goes digital frontier where a thousand flowers could bloom, the less rules the better. The problem with this formula, however, is that “anything goes” often translated to “not our problem.” Platforms like YouTube became major destinations for people who wanted to spread hate and disinformation to massive audiences. YouTube let this happen unchecked for years and only recently started to take action to remove and downrank dangerously conspiratorial and bigoted content from its site.
An office environment that harms some workers and moderation policies that harm some users may be separate problems, but in Google’s case, the former never prodded the company to do anything about the latter—until it became a problem with implications for the very health of democracy, and lawmakers started to threaten the company with regulations. And both issues stem from the same formative Silicon Valley worldview that conceptualizes the internet as a place that functions best with as little oversight as possible.
Google is reconsidering its free-for-all ethos only after repercussions have forced it to listen. Perhaps banning heated political conversations will prevent the next Damore-like controversy. Or perhaps it will discourage Google employees—like the ones who convinced the company to cancel a Department of Defense A.I. contract—from demanding the company behave ethically. Or perhaps both. What it will definitely do is chip away at the myth that Google is something other than a normal corporation.