Google employees protested the interrogation of two colleagues by the company's investigations team, memo says

CNBC Technology 2 weeks ago

Days before Google ended its long-running tradition of weekly all-hands meetings, a group of Google workers staged a protest in the company's San Francisco offices in solidarity with two employees who were being investigated about their retaliation claims, according to an internal memo obtained by CNBC.

Some 20 people organized at Google's 345 Spear St. office in downtown San Francisco to protest the company placing Rebecca Rivers and Laurence Berland on sudden and indefinite administrative leave the prior week, the memo states. Authors of the memo, which was circulated internally at Google on Monday, claimed the actions were an act of retaliation against the workers.

The protest was timed to overlap with Berland's meeting with management. He was based in San Francisco, while Rivers was located out of state. 

"On the day of Laurence's interrogation, we decided that we would break the isolation and fear tactics by bringing the group of 20 supporters to join him in his meeting," the memo says. "When we took action to support Laurence on Wednesday, Google published a Daily Insider defending their enforcement of the need-to-know-policy and when Rebecca bravely refuted the false account a Google spokesperson made to the press, Google responded by canceling TGIF as we know it — reducing its frequency and restricting it to product-only discussions."

A Google spokesperson didn't respond to a request for comment. 

Tensions between employees and management have been on the rise since 2018, when staffers staged a massive walkout after the company paid Android co-founder Andy Rubin $90 million as they dismissed him for sexual assault. At all-hands meetings since, employees have increasingly voiced their concerns about sensitive issues such as handling of sexual harassment, hires from the government and contracts with government agencies. In recent months, employees have leaked meeting notes to the media, showing a growing amount of conflict between executives and workers.

Alleged retaliation and the 'death of TGIF'

Rivers and Berland had spoken out about Google's contracts with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the memo states.

News of the protest comes after CEO Sundar Pichai late last week sent a companywide message stating that it will change its all-hands TGIF meetings to a monthly frequency and keep it strictly focused on business and strategy while holding separate town halls for workplace issues. That marked the end of a long-held tradition, started by co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1999, of holding weekly forums for employees to express concerns and discuss topics openly and freely with management. It became a hallmark of Google's culture and was replicated by other major tech companies.

The authors of the memo said that they are asking the company to bring Rivers and Berland off of administrative leave and back to work. They claim the action was illegal retaliation for organizing activity, violating the company's settlement with the National Labor Relations Board.

"We greeted Laurence at the entrance of the San Francisco 345 Spear St. office, but we were told by HR that the meeting itself was 'private,'" the memo said. "Some of us entered anyway; the rest stood outside the door. When security was called, we politely but firmly stated that we had a right to be there as Googlers who were affected by what was happening and that we [were] acting together to support our friend and colleague."

The memo said Berland's questioning lasted 2.5 hours and was conducted by Google's global investigations team, which allegedly told the employees that they were "not decision-makers" but that they would relay the workers' message "up the chain."

The authors said they plan to hold another gathering on Friday if Google doesn't reinstate Rivers and Berland by Wednesday.

"Five days have passed since 20 Googlers showed up demanding an end to retaliation against Rebecca and Laurence and Google has yet to bring them back to work," they wrote. "Take action this week to support our coworkers and demand an end to the escalating pattern of intimidation. Together, we can save Google's open culture."

The memo also said the "death of TGIF" started in early 2019, when the company allegedly removed its live Q&A feature. Then, in October, the company started taking down so-called Dory questions, or questions asked by employees that normally elicited responses from executives. A company spokesperson told CNBC last week that the meetings had recently become biweekly instead of weekly.

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