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Some Employees Chafe as Google’s New Internal Rules Take Hold

Ryan Gallagher
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Some Employees Chafe as Google’s New Internal Rules Take Hold

(Bloomberg) -- A controversial new hire at Google has provided a test of the company’s new community guidelines, which it says are an effort to curb increased incivility at work. But some employees say the new rules smack of censorship.

Tensions at the company have flared over the hiring of Miles Taylor, who previously served as chief of staff to former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, as a government affairs and public policy manager. Some employees have accused Taylor of helping to support the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration policies.

Karan Bhatia, Google’s global policy chief, told employees in a staff meeting last week that Taylor wasn’t involved in the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S. southern border. But on Oct. 28, BuzzFeed News published emails showing that Taylor had in fact shaped talking points for Nielsen on the administration’s detention of migrant children.

On an internal Google message board on Oct. 29 and Oct. 30, employees posted memes that cited parts of the BuzzFeed News report and accused Bhatia of misleading employees, according to three Google employees and messages seen by Bloomberg News.

At least two of those memes were deleted by company moderators, according to the three Google employees, who requested anonymity because they aren’t authorized to talk to the press. The action was considered unusual because Google has historically encouraged open debate, including on its widely used internal message boards.

“It’s censorship. It can’t be described as anything else,” said a Google software engineer who has worked for the company for more than five years. “They are trying to shut down any criticism of him and his work with the DHS.”

Board Moderators

The incident is the second case in about a week in which Google has reportedly acted to shut down criticism of Taylor’s hiring. On Oct. 24, ahead of an all-staff meeting, the company removed questions about his appointment from Dory, an internal website on which employees vote on topics that they want management to address, BuzzFeed News reported.

Alphabet Inc.’s Google confirmed that it had removed several memes and a question from Dory that had violated the new guidelines, which were introduced in August. The company said it continues to welcome debate but not if it involves attacking or trolling colleagues, or calling them names.

As part of the guidelines, all Google message boards now have an employee who serves as a moderator, but the company said shutting down or deleting threads is a last resort.

Taylor declined to comment. He was hired as Google continues to try to build stronger ties with Republicans after being criticized for pulling out of a military cloud contract and being accused of bias against conservatives in search results.

The moderator who deleted the memes defended the decision. “We don’t allow personal attacks on individuals, including memes that exist to humiliate or make Google unwelcoming for a coworker,” the person wrote in a post on Thursday, which was reviewed by Bloomberg News.

The moderator’s actions attracted widespread discussion inside Google, with one employee arguing that it was wrong to attack a new colleague while others insisted that hiring Taylor was itself a violation of Google’s guidelines on diversity and inclusion, according to one of the workers.

Latest Clash

One meme, which wasn’t removed and was viewed by Bloomberg News, featured an image from the “The Matrix” in which Keanu Reeves’ character, Thomas Anderson, has his mouth sealed up during an interrogation so that he can’t make a phone call. The image contained the caption: “Tell me, Mr. Anderson: What good is it to expose your company’s connection to child imprisonment when your community is ‘moderated’?”

The latest clash between rank-and-file employees and Google executives comes after more than 18 months of worker discontent at the company. Employees last year organized a global walkout over the company’s handling of sexual harassment complaints and launched internal campaigns against some Google projects, including a censored search engine in China and a contract with the Pentagon to analyze drone footage.

In another recent example, some employees raised concerns over a mandatory new tool that was added to the Chrome browser on their work computers. An internal employee memo said the tool would automatically report staffers who create a calendar event with more than 10 rooms or 100 participants, which it alleged was “an attempt of leadership to immediately learn about any workers organization attempts.” Google said the tool was merely a “pop-up reminder that asks people to be mindful before auto-adding a meeting to the calendars of large numbers of employees.”

A meme that has circulated within the company in recent weeks, viewed by Bloomberg News, had summed up the current atmosphere at the company, according to one employee. It depicts an organizational chart of Google from 2014, in which workers at the bottom of the hierarchical ladder are connected directly to their bosses and there is no division between them. Next to that image there is an organizational chart from 2019, in which the connections between rank-and-file and leadership have all been severed -- and both sides are pointing pistols at each other. “This is where we’re at,” the employee said. “It’s bad.”

--With assistance from Mark Bergen.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ryan Gallagher in Edinburgh at rgallagher76@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Martin at amartin146@bloomberg.net, Alistair Barr

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