My remarks at the town hall
(this is a rough transcript of my remarks at the town hall/rally in Hills Bros plaza at Google’s San Francisco office on November 22, 2019. I will provide a quality video when it is ready. The version spoken at the town hall is canonical, when they differ from this rough transcript)
Hi everyone, thank you for coming out here today, we are all really glad to be here together, to show up for each other. My name is Laurence Berland, at Google they call me LaurenceB. I’m an SRE. I first started working here in 2005, and I rejoined the company after a 3 year break in 2017.
I’m here today because, just over two weeks ago, Google locked me out. Why? Less than 90 minutes before it happened, I sent my last email to the community moderation team. I demanded that they stop deleting our questions, our memes, our G+ posts, and that they restore the ones they deleted. And then they turned off my account.
I want to say this very clearly, because I asked Global Investigations, am I being accused of leaking? Their answer was one word: “no”. This isn’t about leaking.
But you already knew that.
So what is this about? I have spoken up for my community and other communities, together with many Googlers. In June, I and others could not remain silent as YouTube doubled down on tolerating hate at the expense of LGBTQ+ users and creators alike. Whether a popular journalist with 1,000,000 views, or a 14 year old kid with 10, the health, safety, and indeed lives of our community are threatened. To see our community treated this way, and for leadership to ignore our concerns, we didn’t feel welcome in our workplace anymore. So we marched against Google in the SF Pride parade, even though they tried to tell us not to.
In August, I did my part in gathering signatures, providing updates, and having dozens of conversations with my coworkers, demanding that Google not work with CBP, because of the atrocities they are perpetrating against refugees, including the ongoing detention of children apart from their families. These atrocities continue every day-I just read this week that even as a flu epidemic is on the verge of decimating a detention center in Southern California, CBP is refusing to allow doctors access to provide flu shots.
So when Google chose to hire those responsible for the administration of these human rights violations, which as a workplace with many immigrants, muslims, and other communities made my coworkers feel unsafe, and unwelcome, many of us spoke up, including me. I am sure many of you feel the same way about that issue as I do, and I’m sure some of you don’t, but if we can’t speak up about these issues that concern us about our work, how can we ever hold ourselves and each other to the high standard that we need and the world deserves? Silence and secrecy are not the way for us to come together to solve problems.
Even though Rebecca and I are experiencing the full force of Google’s retaliation, this is not really about me. It’s not about Rebecca. It’s about us, all of us, and the open culture we built and treasure together. If they can do this to me, they can do this to anyone, and that culture is lost forever. Everything we’ve built here, we built on that culture. What is Google without our culture?
Let me take a minute to share what I went through these past couple of weeks. I was:
- Put on indefinite admin leave without warning. And I mean literally without warning. My account was deactivated while I was working. I was only told hours later that I was being placed on admin leave.
- The only word the company would use to tell me what was wrong was that it was for an “issue”.
- The next thing I heard about my leave wasn’t from my manager, or from HR, it was from the press. That’s right, a company spokesperson told Bloomberg why I was on admin leave, something they still haven’t really told me. Is this really okay? We are constantly told that “leaks” are why leadership can’t have conversations with us, anymore, but here they are talking to the press about me before even talking to me. I’ve heard that Kent Walker, the chief legal officer, was repeating those same claims to you all inside the company. Kent’s usually a thoughtful guy, so I’m not sure what happened with this, because these words gave many the impression that I’m accused of leaking. But as I said before, that is not the case.
- A few days later they contacted me to schedule my interrogation with Global Investigations. My friends and coworkers had been asking me if I’d heard anything, so I told them that I was to report to the office. In less than 24 hours they mobilized 20 people, many of whom I recognized: from our organizing meetings, from my team, from the cafe, to be there in person for my interrogation. They walked me to the room, and despite being asked to leave multiple times, they went inside the room and stayed until they were permitted to make a statement to my interrogators. Words cannot do justice to how much this meant to me. The company would not allow me a support person, would not allow me a representative, but here were my coworkers standing up for me. I will be forever grateful. But that’s what we expect from each other at Google, right? We look out for each other, here.
- After my coworkers left, the meeting began. They call it an ‘interview’. They say they want to have a ‘conversation’. But then they try to trick you, they try to get you to say things that aren’t true. They tried to discourage me from taking notes. They even refused to let me use the bathroom.
- They asked me about calendars. Every coworker who has talked to me about that has said the same thing: “calendars? I look at calendars every day!” Because of course we do. I told the investigators: there’s a link to calendar on every moma profile!
- Why were we looking at calendars? Because we were concerned about the censorship of our workplace. We wanted to know what was going on, why does it feel like there’s an organized effort to censor Googlers? To keep us from talking about our concerns? And when I looked at these calendars, what I saw was really worrisome. It looks like exactly that: the company had an organized effort, with dozens of people, coordinating to spy on us all, track us all, censor us all. I could not believe it.
- They asked me if I had seen a policy, but wouldn’t show me the policy. They wouldn’t tell me what it said. I asked where I would have found this policy and they didn’t even know! They had to go find it. I still don’t know what policy they were talking about. They asked me about a few other docs, too, pretty much the same way. It was bizarre.
- Most concerning, they asked me about my coworkers: what is this group discussing concerns? Who are the people who came to support you? They wanted me to identify my coworkers who are working together with me to improve our workplace. I’m pretty sure that’s illegal. And if you look at the NLRB notice, you can read it for yourself, “WE WILL NOT ask that you report other employees who are engaging in protected concerted activity”. It’s right there in the notice, but they did it anyway.
- For two and a half hours.
Since then I have heard almost nothing from Google. The last email I got only tells me that I’m not even allowed to know who will be deciding my fate. Don’t Googlers need to know who is making these decisions?
Google has done almost everything in it’s power to silence me and make me feel like I don’t belong. However, my friends and coworkers have shown me that I do belong here.
Like I said before, this isn’t really about me, or Rebecca, or any individual. They are retaliating against us because they want to intimidate everyone who dares to disagree with leadership. Disagree about a policy. Disagree about a decision. Disagree when they roll out browser extensions they don’t want to tell us about. Disagree about their deleting our questions, our emails, our memes. Disagree when they cancel our meetings. Disagree about how they are treating us all. They want us afraid, and they want us silent. Not going to work, not going to happen. All of us are here today to show them that.
I’ve heard that the company has announced radical changes to policies: now Googlers aren’t supposed to look at other team’s docs, notes, calendars, bugs, code…the list goes on and on. For some of us these restrictions are new, but for others, for the TVCs among us, these restrictions were actually introduced a few months ago. So we already have coworkers who have been telling us for months how much harder it is to do their jobs. But why are they even doing this? If we aren’t supposed to see each other’s work, discuss each other’s designs, and have real conversations about our concerns, we will not be able to continue to make the great products we have made.
And that’s not just lip service. Because of the current situation, I didn’t feel comfortable writing this talk in our products. Let me tell you, I miss Google docs. I really miss the comment/suggest feature. We have built some of the best products in the world, by knowing what we’re working on and having input into it, across the company. We are so much stronger when we are all together, for our workplace and for our work. That’s why Googlers need to know. We need to know what we’re working on. We need to know what everyone is working on. We need to know about how we all experience our workplace. We make this the place we all deserve, the place our users deserve, the place the world deserves, but to do that, Googlers need to know. The culture that defines our workplace depends on it.
What are the executives so afraid of? What have we yet to find out? Why destroy everything that we’ve built together? And now they’ve, let’s be honest, they’ve cancelled TGIF. That meeting they’re going to have next year? We all know that’s not TGIF. TGIF wasn’t perfect, but at least we had the chance to ask the important questions. And even if they didn’t always answer them very well, at least we got to ask.
On Wednesday the New York Times published a story: Google hired a labor busting firm called IRI. They’ve been meeting regularly with these consultants since the spring, and the people working with these consultants have been meeting with many others, including the community moderation team. It all makes sense now, but let’s be clear: you don’t hire consultants like this to help you decide if you are going to crack down on your employees. You hire them because you’ve already decided to.
Unfortunately for them, it isn’t working. Why? Because the travesty of it all, what we’re all seeing, is that leadership doesn’t know us anymore, they don’t understand us. They thought we would all take this lying down. I don’t know why they thought that. Everyone one of us could have told them: if you take away our right to see design docs, to view each other’s calendars, to ask questions of leadership, we aren’t going to stand for it. They thought we’d just give up on our culture, our coworkers, our company. But here we are, because we aren’t giving up.
But there is hope. It doesn’t have to be this way. It never had to be this way. If they had just come to us all, really been thoughtful about these issues, actually engaged with us, we all have something to contribute to this, we would have helped. We are all here today because we are still willing to help, we are willing to show them how our culture works, we are here to rebuild the trust that they have destroyed. We are offering. They just have to take us up on it.
My friend and coworker Marie said something that really stood out to me, last June at the Alphabet shareholder’s meeting. She told the board of directors, Kent Walker, and other leadership: “If I’m no longer here in a year, five others will be here to fill this spot.” With all due respect, Marie, what is clear to us all here today is that you were wrong. There won’t be 5 people here if I am gone, there will be 500. That’s why we’re here today. That’s why we work here. Googlers need to know what’s going on. Thank you for coming out here to stand together.
(please follow me on twitter @laurenceb for updates when I am able to provide them)