A dispute between Google and two employees who helped organize a walkout last fall is intensifying, after Google executives reportedly sent emails to coworkers of one of the women, disputing her claim that she was demoted.
The two employees, Claire Stapleton and Meredith Whittaker, hosted a “town hall” forum in New York Friday that was live-streamed to other Google offices. Attendees said Stapleton discussed the emails sent to her coworkers and employees shared other stories of alleged retaliation at Google.
In a statement later Friday, Stapleton said that earlier this week, Google executives tried to undermine her “in emails this week to thousands of my friends and colleagues” by challenging Stapleton’s claim that she was “demoted” because she was reassigned and lost half of her direct reports; her original role was reinstated after she hired a lawyer. Stapleton claimed Google’s emails said there was “never a demotion.”
“What’s true is that there was a demotion, and after my lawyers got involved, it was reversed,” Stapleton wrote, in a statement viewed by WIRED. Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that an unnamed Google employee filed a charge against Google with the National Labor Relations Board, related to retaliation, assigned to its New York office, where Whittaker and Stapleton are based.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Google said, “We prohibit retaliation in the workplace and publicly share our 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 spokesperson did not respond to questions about the email challenging Stapleton’s claim of demotion.
Both women have worked at Google for more than a decade. Whittaker, who leads Google Open Research and has been at Google for 13 years, said Monday that she was effectively asked to abandon her work on AI ethics, including her role at AI Now Institute, a group she cofounded affiliated with New York University. Stapleton, a marketing manager at YouTube who has worked for Google for nearly 12 years, said that months after the walkout her role was restructured, she lost half her reports, and Google’s human resources department suggested that she take medical leave although she was not sick.
Although both women helped organize the November protest in which 20,000 Google employees briefly walked out of their offices to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment claims, their claims differ. Whittaker’s claims of retaliation appear to be tied to her work on AI ethics, including organizing protests last spring around the Pentagon’s Project Maven, under which Google applied artificial intelligence techniques to help identify objects in drone footage, and a more recent protest against Google’s external advisory council on AI.
In a statement she released Friday, Whittaker said her manager told her in late December she would likely need to leave Google’s Cloud division, where she had been working for years. She said the issue “escalated” in March, when the same manager told her that the Cloud division was seeking more revenue “and that AI Now and my AI ethics work was no longer a fit.” She said the request was strange because the Cloud unit has a team working on ethical concerns related to AI.
During the March meeting, Whittaker claims her manager also told her that there are “two kinds of people at Google…those who quit, and those who stay and hate every minute of it and try to destroy it.” In the statement, Whittaker says, “I was taken aback, since my work has always aimed to ensure that Google lived up to its purported values, and treated its workforce, and the rest of the world, with respect.”
The protest against Google’s external advisory council revolved around the company’s appointment of Kay Cole James, president of the Heritage Foundation; employees were upset by James’ anti-trans and anti-immigrant political statements. Google disbanded the council after nearly 2,600 employees signed a petition against James’s participation.
In her statement on Friday, Whittaker says that on April 1, a few days before the petition was drafted, she got approval from Jeff Dean, an executive working on AI at Google, to transfer from Cloud to Google’s Research and Machine Intelligence group. Two weeks after the petition was sent, Whittaker claims her transfer was killed.