When to put down the tools

On November 1, 2018, I was teaching an ethics workshop in Ottawa, Canada. One of the topics we covered that day was the power of organized protest. If you walk out of your job in protest, you have a problem. But if you can talk your entire department into walking out with you, then your company has a problem. It’s hard to replace an entire department. Especially once people start asking why you’re hiring an entire new department. Collectively we have more power than we do individually. The attendees at the workshop might’ve been buying all of this in theory. But practically? Who’s going to do that? Who walks out on their job anymore?

As the workshop drew to a close, I tried to content myself with the fact that I’d gotten people maybe halfway there. Then I glanced at my phone. And saw an alert about 22,000 employees world-wide walking out of their jobs at Google to protest the company’s mishandling of a high-profile sexual harassment case. The world noticed. And the workshop attendees who were all packing up to leave noticed. They were all looking at the same, or similar, alerts. They looked at each other. They looked back at me. And I saw hope in their eyes. What I’d (maybe) convinced them was true in theory, they were now seeing was possible in practice. 22,000 employees at one of the biggest, most powerful, companies in the world, had organized across multiple time zones. They communicated. They planned. They made an impact. And not a single one of them was fired. The story wasn’t reported as being about disgruntled employees, which it might have had there been three or four employees standing outside a building. It was reported as being about bad corporate policy, which it very much was. Sexual harassment, to be exact. When we organize, they have a problem.

Even the biggest companies in the world are made up of people like us.

One of the questions we need to ask ourselves is where the line is. What’s the thing that makes you put down the tools. On November 1, 2018, 22,000 Google employees showed us where the line was for them. That walkout brought attention to a situation and it told the company they’d crossed a line. A line those employees wouldn’t cross with them.

On November, 14, 2018, The New York Times published a story on how Facebook dealt with the combined crises of Russian meddling, data hacking and hate speech. This is the paragraph that caught my eye:

Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, persuading a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.

Sadly, it wasn’t Facebook’s behavior that surprised me. A scorpion does what a scorpion knows how to do. What surprises me is that Facebook employees are still at their desks after finding that their company was actively attempting to discredit activists. No doubt some of them are shook. No doubt some of them will make public statements against their company’s policy. And those are needed. No doubt there will be internal spirited conversations within the company. And those are needed as well. But there won’t be a walk-out. I say this hours after the article was released. But I doubt that I’ll have to come back to this paragraph and revise it. I wish I wasn’t so sure of that. But I am.

Facebook employees, with a few individual exceptions, don’t believe their company has crossed a line yet. Twitter employees, again with a few individual exceptions, don’t believe their company has crossed a line yet. We know this because they haven’t put down the tools. And by continuing to aid the companies making those decisions by selling them their labor, they’ve become complicit in their actions. They haven’t organized. They haven’t made a stand.

And they won’t.

And, believe it or not, that’s the hopeful part. Companies where employees aren’t taking a stand, companies where employees aren’t awake to the complicity of their labor, companies where employees aren’t willing to put the tools down and take an ethical stand, will eventually die. They’re creating a workforce no one wants to join and building toxic products no one wants to use. Their short-term decisions are digging their long-term resting place.

After watching 22,000 Google employees walk out in protest of their company’s unethical actions, I know someone’s watching the gate. I’m more inclined to trust them. Not necessarily because I trust the company, but because the employees have shown me that I can trust them.