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Leon Kaye headshot

Google Sued Over a Culture of Leaks Mixed with Intimidation

By Leon Kaye

It turns out members of the Donald Trump administration are not the only ones in perpetual freak-out mode over allegations of leaks, leaks and more leaks.

The same culture of paranoia, fear and retribution is reportedly going on at Google, the Silicon Valley titan that represents all that is wonderful, and dubious, about the technology sector. The IT giant behind America's favorite search engine, a leading smartphone operating system and perhaps the future autonomous self-driving technology has not taken kindly to any on-the-sly talks that some of its employees have with the media, or for that matter, anyone outside the company.

Like many of its peers and competitors, Google fosters a culture of secrecy and is fiercely protective of intellectual property. The company requires its employees to sign non-disclosure or confidentially agreements to preclude any release of proprietary information.

The problem, however, is two-fold. First, some employees say they were fired over this policy even though they did not speak with the press. In addition, Google’s actions may violate California’s labor laws, according to several experts.

The tension led a former employee to file suit against Google late last year, months after its confidentiality policy resulted in a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

The litigation outlines a bevy of accusations, including an alleged Google policy that warns employees not to document any observations of potential wrongdoing within the company over the risk that it could fall into the hands of law enforcement officials or regulators. The lawsuit charges that confidentiality rules are so stringent that an employee could not even write fiction about “someone working at a tech company in Silicon Valley” without Google approving the final draft.

But what is almost amusing about these shenanigans is how Google’s concern over leaks led to a curious all-employee email. Executives were reportedly in a fit of pique over memes and jokes about Tony Fadell, CEO of Nest, the smart thermostat and home device company that's part of Google's larger Alphabet family. Complaints about Nest’s work culture, mostly in the form of memes, were leaked to tech blogs including Recode.

The email began with an ominous, all-caps disclaimer: “INTERNAL ONLY. REALLY.” Such warnings are usually successful in sparking the opposite kind of behavior.

The nasty-gram, written by a former U.S. State Department agent tasked with clamping down on leaks at Google, invited more mockery with its blend of threats to fire employees with cajoling to stop such talks with outsiders since “it also betrays the values that make [Google] a community.”

That kind of warning only motivates a disgruntled employee to push that email out, despite the company’s generous benefits ranging from complimentary cafeteria food to free autonomous rides if they happen to live near the company’s headquarters in Mountain View.

From Google’s point of view, such measures are necessary to protect its business. After all, when you’re on top of the mountain, many competitors are doing what they can climb up and join you at the peak. Witness, for example, the epic lawsuit Google filed against Uber over allegations that a former employee made off with self-driving car trade secrets, only to join Uber several months later.

But Google’s obsession with extreme secrecy risks poisoning the relationship it has with its best-in-class employees, and is turning into a case study of what not to do on the employee engagement front.

Image credit: Luis Villa del Campo/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye