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‘Welcome to the party’: five past tech whistleblowers on the pitfalls of speaking out – The Guardian

When Frances Haugen revealed she was the Facebook whistleblower who supplied internal documents to Congress and the Wall Street Journal, she joined a growing list of current and former Silicon Valley employees who’ve come forward to call out military contracts, racism, sexism, contributions to climate crisis, pay disparities and more in the industry.

In the past days, the Guardian spoke with five former employees of Amazon, Google, and Pinterest who’ve spoken out about their companies’ policies. The conversations revealed Haugen’s experience has been singular in some respects. Few of them received the international praise bestowed upon her. Some of them said they have faced termination, retaliation, harassment and prolonged litigation.

But Haugen is entering a community of whistleblowers that appears tighter than ever, with some working to make it easier for the employees to come forward, through legislation, solidarity funds, and resources.

“Welcome to the party, Frances Haugen,” one tweeted.

Chelsey Glasson

Chelsey Glasson.
Chelsey Glasson. Photograph: Courtesy Chelsey Glasson

Chelsey Glasson left Google in August 2019, alleging pregnancy discrimination and retaliation. She filed a discrimination lawsuit against the company the following year, and her trial is scheduled for 10 January. Years of litigation against a multibillion dollar company have been “like a part-time job”, according to the mom of two.

After leaving Google, Glasson landed at Facebook. A few months into the new job, she was notified by Facebook’s legal department that Google had subpoenaed her employee records, including payroll information, performance evaluations, any complaints she lodged while she was there, and any and all communications referencing Google.

In the time since then, Glasson said, she has had to give Google’s legal team access to the most private corners of her life. She’s been through multiple rounds of discovery, depositions, and psychiatric analysis. Since Glasson is filing for emotional damages, Google has asked for her medical records including her notes from therapy sessions in which she has discussed her marriage and other personal issues.

“People don’t understand when you file a lawsuit as a plaintiff, it really is your whole life that becomes on display,” she said. “There are very few limits to what a corporation like Google can ask in discovery. It’s very, very intrusive.”

In the past year, Glasson, who left Facebook to join real-estate startup Compass, has lent her expertise and experience to Washington state senator Karen Keiser to help push through a bill that would extend the time someone could file a pregnancy discrimination claim from six months to a year after experiencing it.

“I really want what I went through to have a purpose and to drive meaningful for others,” she said.

Between the lawsuit, the bill and her advocacy work, Glasson said she’s had little time to process the experiences of the past years. “But it’s been clear from the get-go that in order for me to heal, I needed to know that I did everything that I could to fight this, and that my fight and my story needed to drive change and be used to hopefully help others,” she said.

“If I lose that makes me really scared because I think it sends such a strong signal to Google and other tech companies that fighting hard and aggressively and trying to exhaust plaintiffs like me is the path to go,” she added.

Google declined to comment for this story.

Timnit Gebru

Timnit Gebru.
Timnit Gebru. Photograph: Kimberly White/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Timnit Gebru wouldn’t encourage anyone to be a whistleblower right now. Not with the few protections they’re afforded.

Gebru, a respected leader in AI ethics research, was ousted from Google after she refused to retract a research paper she co-authored about the downfalls of a type of AI software that powers the company’s search engine.

For months after, she dealt with an onslaught of insults and harassment brimming with misogynoir, hatred aimed at Black women, she said.

She became the target of an online harassment campaign by a slew of anonymous accounts. Academics with large followings but no real ties to her or Google disparaged her and her work, saying she was creating a “toxic environment” and that her supporters were simply “deranged activists”. Google’s head of research Jeff Dean called her paper subpar.

“Being a Black woman, it was very different,” Gebru said. “There’s a specific strand of vitriol you deal with.”

Gebru said she was exhausted and didn’t eat or sleep much for months. After learning what happened to Glasson, she decided against seeking therapy in the months after she said she was fired. (Google maintains Gebru resigned from her position.)

“I was afraid of [being subpoenaed], what were they going to try to say or use,” she said. “I don’t want them to know anything.”

But, she acknowledges she’s one of the lucky ones. More than a thousand former colleagues and academics wrote an open letter demanding the company explain its actions. Gebru was also offered funding from foundations for her next endeavor.

“People’s reputations and careers are basically destroyed if they whistleblow like this,” she said. “Even if they’re not, then a lot of people can’t spend all day fighting the companies because they have to figure out how to feed their families and get healthcare. I could take the time to recover a little bit, or try to recover, and deal with what was going on.”

Since she first spoke up, there have been important moves toward creating more protections for whistleblowers, Gebru said. But much of it has been shouldered by whistleblowers themselves. Ifeoma Ozoma, a former Pinterest employee whotogether with Aerica Shimizu Banks, raised pay discrimination issues, helped launch a tech worker handbook. Ozoma and Banks also helped craft the Silenced No More Act, a bill that bars companies from imposing non-disclosure agreements when it comes to workplace or discrimination complaints. Gebru also cited the work Glasson has done in Washington.

“Why do [we] have to be the one to take on the burden?” Gebru asked.

Despite such recent wins for tech whistleblowers, Gebru maintains the payoff isn’t worth the personal cost whistleblowers face. “The best case scenario for [employees Google has fired] is they’re reinstated,” she said. “So why would Google just not do this over and over again? You’re actually telling them that this is the best case strategy for them because they tire you out. They can hide, they have piles of money to hire lawyers.”

Aerica Shimizu Banks

Aerica Shimizu Banks.
Aerica Shimizu Banks. Photograph: Les Talusan/Courtesy Aerica Shimizu Banks

After speaking out publicly about gender and racial pay gaps at Pinterest, Aerica Shimizu Banks didn’t think she would be able to get a job at a big tech company again. She doesn’t think she wants to either.

Banks, along with Ozoma, quit the company in May 2020 after saying they were underpaid and alleged racial discrimination at the company. The company investigated their allegations and found no wrongdoing.

Like a handful of other tech whistleblowers, Banks has spent the year since she exposed her employer trying to make things easier for other people thinking about speaking up about workplace and discrimination. After she helped with the effort to craft the Silenced No More Act, Banks started Shiso, an equity and inclusion consulting company that creates frameworks and systems to help companies follow through on diversity and inclusion pledges.

“I’ve been saying it’s up to us to make meaning out of moments in our lives,” Banks said. “So it’s kind of funny now to be paid by companies to hold them accountable for their actions when before I was ostracized for it.”

Though Banks is happy with the way things have turned out for her personally, she’s frustrated that little has changed in the industry and at Pinterest. “Just as there were many people who supported me and allowed me to come forward with what happened at Pinterest, there are also so many people who are responsible for the racism and sexism and retaliation I experienced there,” she said. “And very few, if none, of those people have faced any consequences.”

In a statement, Pinterest spokesperson Crystal Espinosa said the company has taken “a number of steps” in the past year to make it a safe and equitable workplace including pay transparency and equity and increasing the “percentage of women in leadership” from 25% to 30%. Espinosa also said the company supported the Silenced No More Act and “committed to implementing it regardless if it passed.”

“We want every employee to feel safe, championed and empowered to raise any concerns about their work experience,” the statement read.

Still, Banks said she’d encourage anyone who knew about something unethical happening in their workplace to come forward, albeit with a back-up plan and preparation.

“The passing of the Silenced No More Act shows there is an understanding from policymakers that workers need protections to tell the truth and to not just tell their own story, but tell the truth that can protect other people,” she said. “The appetite for that is growing and the awareness around what our rights as workers really are is growing. I really hope that folks take advantage of this moment and speak out about injustices they see in the workplace.”

But for those expecting to expose workplace issues, Banks said to come prepared with documentation, legal advice, and a community of people who have skills that they may not have.

“It was a lot of pressure and it was a lot of anxiety, but despite all of that, it was incredibly worthwhile,” Banks said.

Laurence Berland

Laurence Berland.
Laurence Berland. Photograph: Paresh Dave/Reuters

Laurence Berland probably would not have spoken out against Google publicly if he wasn’t thrust into the spotlight for being fired by the company after years of internal employee activism. “I never wanted to be a public figure,” Berland said.

For the type of internal organizing he was doing – which included petitions against the company’s contracts with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (Ice) – he didn’t think it made strategic sense to attach his name to it publicly. In fact, Berland is worried about the message conveyed by becoming a public figure for whistleblower work.

“I worry about what it looks like when people get the idea that what’s required is heroics,” he said. “That one person is going to change all this in some radical way. I worry that people see someone makes this big public figure kind of move and they think of it as ‘Well, that person’s taken care of it’.”

Now that he’s become a sort of involuntary whistleblower, Berland says he’s starting to question whether he wants to continue to work in the tech industry.

“Part of the issue is you can settle and get a non-disparagement clause and some cash, but it doesn’t undo the experience. Even getting reinstated. There’s no trauma for the people who perpetrate this, but for those of us on the other side there is.”

Berland was among a group known colloquially as the Thanksgiving Four, named for the holiday timing of their termination. Google says Berland and his colleagues Rebecca Rivers, Paul Duke, Sophie Waldman and later Kathryn Spiers were fired for violating company policies such as accessing and distributing documents they did not have permissions for. The now-former employees, who have been vocal either internally or externally about a host of ethical and workplace issues, say they were fired because of their years of activism.

Since then, the National Labor Relations Board has found validity in their complaints and accused Google of illegally spying on and then firing the workers. Over the last few weeks, the NLRB case has played out over open trial, where Google has argued that even if the ex-employees were fired for protesting against the company’s work with the Ice, it would be within the company’s right.

But for Berland, his part in the case is, at least formally, over. Google agreed to settle with Berland in July for an undisclosed amount and terms. Though he wouldn’t go into details, Berland said the process did change his behavior and forced him to think twice about some of what he would do or write.

Berland, like many of those who spoke to the Guardian, acknowledges the privileged position he was in when he was fired. He already had a lawyer and through his activism work he had developed a community of people who “seemed up to support” him. Though he didn’t set out to be a public whistleblower, that privilege certainly helps when assessing the risks of coming forward, he said.

“The thing that I would say to people is try and judge your risk by what you can really tolerate,” he said. “In a practical sense, what I had that was most important was a savings account. If you can’t afford to make rent next month without your paycheck, what pushes you over to taking that risk?”

That’s part of why Berland has worked with a group of former and current Google workers to create the co-worker solidarity fund, a non-profit that offers financial, legal and strategic support to folks who want to fight for changes inside their companies.

“We’re trying to fundraise from workers, not from big money donors because [we’re] trying to show some solidarity across those kinds of income lines,” he said.

Emily Cunningham

Emily Cunningham.
Emily Cunningham. Photograph: Ted S Warren/AP

Even though she was fired for it, Emily Cunningham would speak out to demand Amazon do more about climate crisis and stand with warehouse workers “a million times over”, she said.

Cunningham is one of two women terminated by Amazon in 2020 after they helped organize shareholder resolutions, sick outs and other acts of employee activism to force the company to reduce its impact on the climate. Cunningham, who is still working with the group, says the year or so since she was fired has been a “transformative” experience.

“My heart is bigger. My imagination of what’s possible when tech workers come together to push one of the largest corporations in the world [is bigger].”

Cunningham’s continued enthusiasm to take on Amazon is bolstered by her recent victory against the company. Cunningham – who, along with Maren Costa, filed a complaint with the NLRB accusing Amazon of firing them in retaliation of their activism – was preparing for a long and grueling battle against the company. But the emotionally draining process of a public trial she was warned about didn’t come to fruition. Amazon settled with the duo, agreeing to pay them back wages and to post notices in offices and warehouses nationwide that say the company is not allowed to fire workers for organizing.

“The legal system is set up to isolate you from other people, because you’re not allowed to talk about certain things,” said Cunningham. “Maren and I weren’t even allowed to talk to each other about our own testimony. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But it was so satisfying to win against Amazon, especially because winning against Amazon was a win for all workers.”

Amazon spokesperson Jose Negrete said the company “reached an agreement that resolves the legal issues in this case”. The company also said it did not admit liability as part of the agreement.

Cunningham also credited the huge support system of people ready to organize climate actions alongside her. When she sent an emotional plea to Amazon employees asking them to sign on a shareholder resolution to require Amazon to release a climate plan, 8,700 obliged. When Cunningham and Costa were threatened with termination for speaking publicly about Amazon, 400 other workers spoke publicly about the company’s role in the climate crisis in protest. When Cunningham and Costa were terminated, Tim Bray – a respected engineer and the former vice-president of Amazon’s cloud computing group – resigned in protest.