Google is facing a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court alleging that the company has fostered a culture of secrecy and fear. Leaks to the media are forbidden, and employees are encouraged to monitor their colleagues for leaks, according to the suit, which was filed in December by an anonymous ex-employee who claims they were unjustly fired.
We're now seeing some of the first evidence to support those allegations. Earlier this month, attorneys for the plaintiffs entered an email as an exhibit in the case. The May 2016 document — one that has been previously quoted from in the lawsuit but not published in full — describes the result of an internal hunt for a leaker, mentioning a dedicated "stopleaks" internal email address, presumably directing to a team that the lawsuit claims is tasked with such investigations.
The story behind the all-staff email starts with an incident from last year. In April, Recode published internal, employee-generated memes roasting Nest CEO Tony Fadell for a decision to shut down products from Revolv, a company acquired by Nest. In response to the criticism, Fadell gave a talk at the company's weekly TGIF meeting and claimed Nest's culture, another subject of criticism, was "improving." The transcript from the talk was then also published by Recode.
The internal email was sent a few weeks later, on May 6th, with the subject line "the recent leaks." Written by Brian Katz, a former State Department special agent who now runs "investigations" at Google, it begins with a stern warning: "INTERNAL ONLY. REALLY."
Katz introduces himself as the head of the "stop leaks" team, a group of employees that the lawsuit claims is tasked with tracing the source of information that makes its way to the public. Katz writes that the company identified and fired the leaker for "their intentional disregard of confidentiality." As a result of the leaks, Google stopped publishing transcripts of its TGIF talks, opting for a live stream instead. (The plaintiff who brought the suit says he was falsely accused by Katz of being the source of the leaks.)
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"We've all worked hard to create an environment where we can share information openly," Katz writes. "Our culture relies on our ability to trust each other — we share a lot of confidential information, but we also commit to keeping it inside the company. We don't want that to change." He went on to encourage employees to share concerns with managers or through the human resources department, rather than airing them publicly. The Information noted in a story last year that, around the same time, Katz allegedly told employees in a webcast "to look to their left and look to their right," saying one of those people may be leaking information.
Katz ended by writing that the conversation had turned "less than civil" inside Google, and points to conversations on internal Google tools like Memegen as problems. "Memegen, Misc, Internal G+, and our many discussion groups are a big part of our culture — they keep us honest — but like any conversation amongst colleagues, we should keep it respectful."
The lawsuit alleges that Google's leaks policy covers essentially all company information and prohibits reasonable discussion about company activities. The stop leaks team is a primary object of criticism in the suit, which alleges that the team encourages employees to report any suspicious activity from their colleagues and streamlined the leak-reporting process with a dedicated URL. The email references a dedicated email address as well: "stopleaks@". Google declined to elaborate on how the stop leaks team works. An attempt at emailing the group resulted in a bounce.
A related case was also recently brought to the National Labor Relations Board.
"We're very committed to an open internal culture, which means we frequently share with employees details of product launches and confidential business information," a Google spokesperson told The Verge in a statement. "Transparency is a huge part of our culture. Our employee confidentiality requirements are designed to protect proprietary business information, while not preventing employees from disclosing information about terms and conditions of employment or workplace concerns."
The full text of the email is copied below.
Subject: The recent leaks
From: Brian Katz
INTERNAL ONLY. REALLY.
Hi there. I'm Brian. I lead the Investigations team, which includes stopleaks@.
At TGIF a few weeks back we promised an update on our investigation into some recent leaks, and here it is: We identified the people who leaked the TGIF transcript and memes. Because of their intentional disregard of confidentiality, they've been fired.
We've all worked hard to create an environment where we can share information openly. Our culture relies on our ability to trust each other—we share a lot of confidential information, but we also commit to keeping it inside the company. We don't want that to change.
That said, we'll be making some changes to TGIF to help keep the information shared internal-only, starting by no longer posting the written transcript to go/tgif. Instead, you'll be able to watch a live stream, and for those who can't tune in live, we'll be offering the full video with Q&A.
We'll continue to share information internally because the vast majority of Googlers and Characters respect our culture and don't leak—thank you for that. That commitment toward a common vision and goal makes this a special place to work.
Please remember: whether malicious or unintentional, leaks damage our culture. Be aware of the company information you share and with whom you share it. If you're considering sharing confidential information to a reporter—or to anyone externally—for the love of all that's Googley, please reconsider! Not only could it cost you your job, but it also betrays the values that makes us a community. If you have concerns or disagreements, share them constructively through your manager, HRBP or go/saysomething.
Which brings me to my final point: some of the recent discourse on Memegen and elsewhere within the company has been, shall we say, less than civil. Memegen, Misc, Internal G+ and our many discussion groups are a big part of our culture—they keep us honest—but like any conversation amongst colleagues, we should keep it respectful.
Director, Protective Services, Investigations & Intelligence