At least two employees are facing retaliation from Google over their involvement in organizing a walkout at the search giant late last year, according to recently reported internal emails detailing the alleged problem. The two employees in question are Meredith Whittaker, a leader of Google’s Open Research, and Claire Stapleton, a marketing manager at YouTube.
For her part, Ms. Whittaker says that Google threatened to remove her from her position unless she "abandoned" work "on AI ethics and the AI Now Institute." That's an area of research the employee says she has been working with for years and the latter of those is an institute Ms. Whittaker cofounded at New York University to research AI ethics and bias. Google is said to have made the move after it revealed it would be disbanding its own AI Ethics Board earlier this month.
Ms. Stapleton's circumstances are somewhat more complex. In the months following the protest at Google, the executive was informed she would be demoted from her position. The hostility of the work environment worsened after she fought back against the demotion, with managers ignoring Ms. Stapleton and reportedly telling her to go for an unneeded medical leave.
The decision to remove Ms. Stapleton from her position was reversed following her decision to hire a lawyer and a subsequent internal investigation. The manager says that hasn't improved matters much and that she considers leaving her long-held position on a daily basis.
In each of the above cases, the employees claim Google either removed or attempted to them from positions of power after they were part of a group of employees that organized a walkout at the company. They also claim they aren't the only employees who have faced similar backlash for trying to address systemic issues within the organization.
This particular instance is said to have stemmed from sexual assault and harassment allegations across a swath of the company's upper management. Approximately 20,000 employees staged a brief walkout in protest of the behavior and of shortcomings in the company's handling of allegations.
The walkout does appear to have a net positive impact on Google's policies and practices in both preventing harassment and assault, to begin with, and addressing new cases that arise. For example, there are new restrictions in place to prevent over-consumption of alcohol at business-related events. New guides are now in place to handle allegations as they occur, and extra training is undertaken on a regular basis to prevent ethical problems and misconduct.
Did Google take advantage of restructuring for revenge?
As noted already, workers claim this isn't the first time that Google's management teams have retaliated against employees who speak out, noting that it has previously attempted to silence women, people of color, and gender minorities. Google has, for its part, already reportedly claimed that its internal investigation revealed no instances of retaliation.
The company's many shuffles and the number of employees or managers working within its ranks make determining the honesty of its investigation difficult to ascertain. Highlighted above, the company was already working disband its AI Ethics committee over another controversy when the apparent retaliation against Ms. Whittaker is said to have occurred.
That decision muddies the water as to whether the threat to remove her was associated with her role in the company as it relates to the AI Ethics board. What remains less clear is whether or how her role at the AI Now Institute was relevant to the situation and why the wholly separate entity was brought into the discussion at all.