The giants of Silicon Valley have built an open culture. Now the workers are holding them back

Many Silicon Valley companies have long valued transparency with workers, sharing access to research, data, presentations, and recorded town halls. Now this opening seems to be showing signs of strain.

More and more internal debates and criticisms of tech giants are spreading into public view. The most extreme examples are the leaks of sensitive information, which has led the biggest tech companies and their workforce to tighten the reins on information and view themselves with a new suspicion.

At Netflix Inc., some employees staged a walkout Wednesday to protest the company’s handling of an outcry over a Dave Chappelle comedy special. In a recent email to staff, first reported by The Verge, Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook said that people who share confidential information outside the company are not there. have no place. Earlier this year, Google fired an employee of its artificial intelligence team for allegedly sharing internal documents. And Facebook told employees last week that it would limit the number of people who can see discussions on internal platforms on certain topics, including platform security, after a former employee gathered documents that made up the base of the Wall Street Journal Facebook File Series.

These developments come as some tech workers are publicly and privately questioning their work and the effects it can have on society, according to interviews with current and former employees of the companies. Some techs claim that the increased reliance on tools like Slack, Discord, and Zoom in the age of remote working has led to communicating with coworkers they otherwise wouldn’t have.

Those who work in the tech industry say that most of the employees they speak with seem happy in their roles. Workers say that the number of their colleagues who are disillusioned and speak out is a small minority that grows and gets stronger and stronger. A recent survey of nearly 500 Facebook employees by the professional network Blind found that 74% said they believed in the recent defenses of company management and only 22% said they believed Facebook was doing put profits before safety. However, 45% believe the federal government should impose regulations on the company.

Facebook spokesperson Tracy Clayton said the company “values ​​expression, open discussion and a culture of respect and inclusiveness.”

“Are we making the world a better place? “

When he joined Google a decade ago, Xavid Pretzer, a senior engineer, was drawn to the company’s free and open culture and the idea that he could make a difference. Questions, comments and debate were previously more encouraged, said Mr Pretzer, a shop steward of the Alphabet Workers Union, which formed during the pandemic to organize workers and give them the opportunity to speak out about the company. It had around 800 members in January.

“People are often drawn to these companies by the idea that you aren’t doing it just for a salary. You are trying to make the world a better place, ”he said.

These days, Mr Pretzer said some employees feel their pointed questions now get more vague answers in town halls where commentary and transparency were the norm. The change has eroded trust between management and some employees, Mr Pretzer said. If companies don’t come up with safe and meaningful ways to deal with ethical issues internally, he added, “I think some people feel their only option is to go outside. “

Google declined to comment. This week at the Wall Street Journal’s Tech Live conference, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said employee activism is pushing companies to be more responsible. Mr. Pichai is also CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc.

“CEOs need to embrace the fact that in the modern workplace, employees want to have a say in their workplace,” he said, adding that companies ultimately make the decisions. and that not all employees will agree with them.

Apple has long been known to be more secretive than some of its Silicon Valley rivals. Over the past year, employees have publicly opposed the new hires and accused the company of pay inequity and discrimination. Earlier this month, the company fired Janneke Parrish, an Austin employee who helped run the organizing activities of employees with the hashtag “AppleToo,” according to her attorney, Vincent White. Mr White said he and Ms Parrish believed the dismissal was retaliation. for his decision to speak out on pay equity and the defense of interests related to union organization.

Another former Apple employee, Ashley Gjøvik, has filed several accusations with the National Labor Relations Board, including allegations that Mr Cook’s memo discouraging the release of confidential information and parts of the company’s manual Apple employee violated labor laws. She said she was fired in September.

The Verge first reported on the two layoffs at Apple.

“We take all concerns seriously and thoroughly investigate whenever a concern is raised and, out of respect for the privacy of anyone involved, we do not discuss specific matters relating to employees,” said the Apple spokesperson Josh Rosenstock.

Facebook’s circle of trust with employees has long since started from day one, with new hires typically having access to company information such as internal documents, employee discussion groups, and city council records. CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s comments at weekly meetings at all levels generally stayed within the company. In recent years, more information about company-wide meetings has become public, and earlier this month the company began cracking down on information shared internally.

Tim Carstens, a senior software engineer who left Facebook last month, said working at a large tech company means accepting both the benefits and the complications that come with massive influence. Tensions arise between leaders and workers as they reconcile how to serve both the market and society, he added.

“Are we making the world better or making it worse?” Asked Carstens, adding that malicious actors may have exploited platforms and companies have struggled to stop them. “The problems we are talking about are extremely relevant today, but for us engineers it is not clear how to solve them.”

New drama on Netflix

Netflix executives, who have long focused on employee openness and internal debate, have been challenged by the backlash from Dave Chappelle’s comedy special, which some employees and subscribers say is offensive to the transgender community. The company fired an employee who it said leaked confidential financial information related to the comedy special. Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos initially acknowledged in emails to employees the concerns of some staff members while defending freedom of artistic expression. He later said in an interview that he “screwed up” with his response to the employees and should have admitted that some of them were really in pain.

On Wednesday, a group of protesters, including Netflix staff, gathered outside one of Netflix’s Los Angeles offices to protest the comedy special, while a group of employees released demands for The direction. Netflix said in a statement, “We value our transgender colleagues and allies, and understand the profound harm that has been caused. We respect the decision of any employee who chooses to opt out and recognize that we have a lot more work to do both within Netflix and in our content. “

A former tech employee wants to make it easier for employees to voice their concerns. Ifeoma Ozoma, who last year alleged unequal wages and discrimination while at Pinterest, recently published an online manual for tech workers considering disclosing information they deem to be in the public interest. .

Ms Ozoma, who has also worked at Google and Facebook, said she heard a stream of tech employees, as well as friends or family of tech workers, all curious about finding a lawyer or working. with reporters, she said.

Ms Ozoma said that when companies are re-examined, they often struggle to find out who is sharing information. At Pinterest, she said her Slack posts had been reviewed. Pinterest did not comment.

Changing public perceptions of companies like Facebook and Google may weigh on some younger workers, analysts and former workers say.

“A few years ago, if you said you worked for one of these companies, nine out of ten people were like, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ Now five in ten people say, “This is great” and five in ten people say, “Oh really? This company is doing bad things, ”said Brian Kropp, research director in the human resources practice at Gartner.

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, released a note, first reported by The New York Times, to employees last month offering tips for speaking with friends and family who may question their work at Facebook and the company’s influence on political discourse, among other things.

“We will continue to be asked difficult questions. And a lot of people will continue to be skeptical of our motives, ”Mr. Clegg wrote. “This is what comes from being part of a company that has a significant impact in the world.

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