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At Google workers' town hall, employees pledge to protect each other from retaliation – CNET

Google workers staged a worldwide walkout last year.

James Martin/CNET

Google workers on Friday held a town hall meeting to discuss alleged retaliation from the search giant over employees' activism and organizing efforts.

The company's employees booked rooms for viewing the town hall from Google offices all over the world, according to an employee who attended the meeting. At the gathering, Google workers pledged to protect each other from retaliation and brainstormed ideas to help. Some of that action could take place as soon as next week, that employee said.

That employee also said it was the first big town hall meeting that Google's temporary workers, vendors and contractors -- known as TVCs in Google parlance -- were able to attend, since the gathering was held by employees and not management.

The meeting was called after two workers who helped to organize a massive employee walkout said management was unfairly targeting them. In November, roughly 20,000 Googlers walked out of the company's offices worldwide to protest its handling of sexual assault allegations directed at key executives. The demonstration drew international attention.

One organizer, Meredith Whittaker, who leads Google's Open Research program, said earlier this week that she was asked to choose between Google and her outside work. Whittaker co-founded New York University's AI Now Institute, a research center that examines the societal effects of artificial intelligence. Whittaker said Google asked her to give up that work after the company disbanded its own AI ethics board last month amid controversy over one of its members.

Claire Stapleton, a marketing manager at Google-owned YouTube, said she was told after the walkout she'd be demoted and lose half of her reports. She said she was also told to go on medical leave even though she wasn't sick. Google only walked back her demotion after she hired a lawyer, Stapleton said.

"Meredith and Claire were bold and unwavering," the employee who attended said. "The support was overwhelming and it looks like the company's misguided gamble to cut off the 'head' of the organizing against harassment, discrimination and unethical decision-making won't work."

Google employees have largely been the poster children for protest in the tech industry -- a sector where rank and file workers have historically refrained from publicly criticizing management. Aside from the handling of sexual assault accusations, Google workers have also protested the company's military contracts, its work in China, and its treatment of temporary workers and contractors.

Outside of Google, other tech workers have also been speaking up. At Amazon, thousands of workers signed a letter earlier this month that urged the company to reduce its carbon footprint and take action against climate change.

The town hall meeting comes a day after Google released its workplace policy guidelines, including its rules on retaliation.

Retaliation means taking an adverse action against an employee or TVC as a consequence of reporting, for expressing an intent to report, for assisting another employee in an effort to report, for testifying or assisting in a proceeding involving sexual harassment under any federal, state or local anti-discrimination law, or for participating in the investigation of what they believe in good faith to be a possible violation of our Code of Conduct, Google policy or the law. 

The section concludes by warning employees that not all complaints may meet that definition."If you report something that is not a policy violation and you believe you are being treated adversely as a result, you should feel free to report that and we will look into it, but it may not amount to retaliation under this policy," the guidelines say.

Google declined to comment on the town hall, but a spokeswoman said the company prohibits retaliation and has a "very clear policy." 

"To make sure that no complaint raised goes unheard at Google, we give employees multiple channels to report concerns, including anonymously, and investigate all allegations of retaliation," the spokeswoman said.   

At Google workers' town hall, employees pledge to protect each other from retaliation     - CNET

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