Wednesday, 17 August, 2022
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Google to McKinsey — The story of how ‘employee activism’ rose

In ‘Brand Activism’ Christian Sarkar and Philip Kotler write that if talent is rebelling, companies need to listen and establish a response protocol.

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What happens when employees decide their company should not pursue a customer or a project? 

Do they have the right to be conscientious objectors? 

This letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai was submitted with over 3000 signatures: 

Dear Sundar, 

We believe that Google should not be in the business of war. Therefore, we ask that Project Maven be cancelled, and that Google draft, publicize and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology. 

Google is implementing Project Maven, a customized AI surveillance engine that uses ‘Wide Area Motion Imagery’ data captured by US Government drones to detect vehicles and other objects, track their motions, and provide results to the Department of Defense. 

Recently, Googlers voiced concerns about Maven internally. Diane Greene responded, assuring them that the technology will not ‘operate or fly drones’ and ‘will not be used to launch weapons.’ While this eliminates a narrow set of direct applications, the technology is being built for the military, and once it’s delivered it could easily be used to assist in these tasks. 

This plan will irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent. Amid growing fears of biased and weaponized AI, Google is already struggling to keep the public’s trust. By entering into this contract, Google will join the ranks of companies like Palantir, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. The argument that other firms, like Microsoft and Amazon, are also participating doesn’t make this any less risky for Google. Google’s unique history, its motto Don’t Be Evil, and its direct reach into the lives of billions of users set it apart. 

We cannot outsource the moral responsibility of our technologies to third parties. Google’s stated values make this clear: Every one of our users is trusting us. Never jeopardize that. Ever. This contract puts Google’s reputation at risk and stands in direct opposition to our core values. Building this technology to assist the US Government in military surveillance—and potentially lethal outcomes—is not acceptable. 

Recognizing Google’s moral and ethical responsibility, and the threat to Google’s reputation, we request that you: 

  1. Cancel this project immediately
  2. Draft, publicize, and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology 

The Googlers are objecting to Google’s involvement in Project Maven, a Department of Defense project that focuses on computer vision—an aspect of machine learning and deep learning—that autonomously extracts objects of interest from moving or still imagery. 

What’s more, after Google chose to continue working on the project, reports indicate that nearly a dozen employees actually resigned in protest. They don’t want to be a party to developing the ‘kill chain’ for autonomous robotic warfare. 

If some of the world’s best and brightest are walking away from their jobs, shouldn’t Google management get the hint? Employee pushback has worked in the past. in 2015, employees and users successfully challenged Google’s ban on sexually explicit content posted to Blogger. 

ASK: Do we understand the impact of our work on our brand? On our employees? Do we listen to employee concerns about our brand?

Also read: There’s a ‘shecession’, women worry more about jobs, 4x less confident than men: LinkedIn survey

Don’t Be Evil 

The Google brand used to be famous for its code of conduct ‘Don’t be evil’ coined by an employee in 2000. While the code has been altered since, the last line still reads (at the time of this printing) as follows: 

‘And remember . . . don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right—speak up!’ 

The objection is not restricted to Google. The backlash against Pentagon contracts is spreading throughout the tech industry.2the tech Workers Coalition issued its own petition for the entire industry. 

From our vantage point, standing outside Google and Alphabet, the decision to pursue this war project seems to go against the Google brand promise. Have the senior executives considered what it means to join the military-industrial complex? 

The employees are right to question their leadership. What does it do for consumer-trust in the long run? Do Google customers want to support a company that aided and abetted autonomous killing? 

The reckless pursuit of profit can blind the best of leaders. Decisions like this can turn out to be a costly brand-destruction exercise for tech companies that are driving for growth at all cost. 

Here’s a thought from the International Committee for Robot Arms Control: 

We are at a critical moment. The Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrates growing public concern over allowing the tech industries to wield so much power. This has shone only one spotlight on the increasingly high stakes of information technology infrastructures, and the inadequacy of current national and international governance frameworks to safeguard public trust. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of systems engaged in adjudicating who lives and who dies. 

We have not heard the last of AI and war. There is too much profit in the military-industrial war machine. 

Unfortunately, the executives in charge may just be too close to the action to think and act rationally. While executives may have failed to think strategically, Google’s employees did not. 

ASK: Do our leaders listen to the voice of employees who risk their jobs to stand up? 

Also read: The real reason millennials & Gen-Z don’t want to become bankers

When talent rebels 

At the consulting giant McKinsey, we saw an employee backlash on its decision to work with the Trump administration on ‘detention savings opportunities’ at ICE, the immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. 

ProPublica’s Ian MacDougall explains that the money-saving recommendations the consultants came up with even made some career ICE staff ‘uncomfortable.’ MacDougall writes: 

They proposed cuts in spending on food for migrants, as well as on medical care and supervision of detainees, according to interviews with people who worked on the project for both ICE and McKinsey and 1,500 pages of documents obtained from the agency after ProPublica filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act. 

McKinsey’s team also looked for ways to accelerate the deportation process, provoking worries among some ICE staff members that the recommendations risked short-circuiting due process protections for migrants fighting removal from the United States. The consultants, three people who worked on the project said, seemed focused solely on cutting costs and speeding up deportations—activities whose success could be measured in numbers—with little acknowledgment that these policies affected thousands of human beings. 

Working with authoritarian regimes in the pursuit of profits is not the best way to win the hearts and minds of your employees. The reputational risk to McKinsey is considerable. 

ASK: Are we risking our reputation by working with certain customers? 

Guidelines for Employee Activism 

A survey commissioned by global communications and marketing solutions firm Weber Shandwick in partnership with KRC Research and United Minds, reveals that 71% of employees feel they can make a difference in society, with 62% believing they can make a greater impact than business leaders can. Millennials are significantly more likely than older generations to feel empowered. 

The study also finds that most U.S. employees believe employees are right to speak up about their employers, whether they are in support of them (84%) or against (75%). the belief that employees have a right to speak up in support of their employers is consistent across generations. Millennials are the only generation that think employees are just as right to speak out against their employers as they are to support (82% vs. 85%, respectively). 

The report offers seven guidelines for navigating the new wave of employee activism: 

1. Embrace employee activism as a positive force to propel your reputation and your business.
2. Ensure your corporate purpose and culture are known from the point of applicant interview and onboarding through employee tenure. 

3. Be mindful of what is on employees’ minds.
4. Cultivate a culture of openness and transparency. 

5. Establish a response protocol. 

6. Clearly articulate and communicate your company’s values. 

7. Make your company’s values part of the solution. 

ASK: Have we established a policy and guidelines for engaging with our employees in activism for the Common Good? 

During the course of writing this book, we encountered several employees who left Facebook because they were shamed by the Cambridge Analytica story. 

Their point of view?
‘I don’t want to work for a company that I cannot believe in.’ 

Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook chief executive has been dubbed ‘the most dangerous person in the world’ by New York University Stern School of Business professor Scott Galloway. One has to ask how we have reached this point. Is no one minding the store? Is there no adult supervision? 

This excerpt from ‘Brand Activism — From Purpose to Action’ by Christian Sarkar and Philip Kotler has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.

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