Tech

'Dead' links and 'missing' systemic changes: Inside Google's response to the George Floyd protests

April Glaser
Key Points
  • Some Google employees said there is a lackluster response from the company to the Black Lives Matter movement and protests that followed George Floyd's death.
Pedestrians walk past Google headquarters in New York.
Jeenah Moon | Reuters

On May 29, four days after George Floyd died in police custody, the CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai, wrote an email to his staff, according to six current employees.

In the email, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, Pichai offered resources "for allies who are looking for ways to help" with the issues of racial injustice that have been a national focus since Floyd's death. He said those resources, which were linked on a webpage called "Allyship," should be consulted before reaching out to their black colleagues at Google.

The information on the page stresses the importance for "non under-represented Googlers" to learn more about bias and inequity and offers three courses Google employees can take to learn how to be a better ally. One is a video and the other two require signing up to attend.

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The two courses, however, aren't actually available for employees to sign up for and haven't been since the page was launched, according to the employees and multiple screenshots reviewed by NBC News. When employees went to the page, it said that there were no upcoming sessions they could sign up to take.

"It basically links to a dead website," said one current Google employee.

The two empty diversity offerings were just one part of what some Google employees say is a lackluster response from the company to the Black Lives Matter movement and protests that followed Floyd's death.

Ten current and former Google employees spoke to NBC News about the internal dynamics at the company on the condition of anonymity because of strict company policies against speaking to news organizations, as well as non-disclosure agreements signed by ex-employees. The sources pointed to rising complaints from some black Google employees about how the company has responded to the ongoing protests in support of racial justice and against police violence, exacerbated by what they see as the company's retreat on diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Six current Google employees confirmed that the internal Allyship page was shared by multiple executives in emails sent to their teams throughout the last two weeks, encouraging them to consult its offerings.

Google said it was not true that the diversity training courses on the Allyship page have not been available for registration and internal courses were available this week for those wishing to take one. The company said in a statement that workers who want to enroll in a course that doesn't appear available can be added to a waitlist.

Google implicitly acknowledged that some of its earlier training sessions were full, saying that it is constantly adding new sessions to take the place of the ones that are not available. It said many of its courses are currently available to new sign-ups, though multiple employees said that as of this week they were unable to register for any of the offerings.

The company also pointed to its corporate donation plan, including matching employee donations to approved causes. Google further added it has donated $32 million to racial justice causes over the last five years.

Google's broader response to the protests has become a subject of discussion on the internal message board for the Black Googler Network, an employee resource group for black employees. On the board, hundreds of employees criticized the company for cutting anti-racism programs designed for white Google employees to learn about racial injustice.

They also criticized Google for focusing on consoling black workers instead of reaching out to white employees about systemic racism and racial privilege at Google, according to leaked images of the discussion whose authenticity was confirmed by five current Google employees.

"Just about every leader it seems has sent emails to the black community saying that they stand in solidarity with us," wrote one Google employee in the thread, which contains a running list of demands submitted by black staff members and upvoted by the group to indicate which issues should be prioritized when raised with leadership. "I feel as though instead of only distracting black Googlers with floods of emails, I wish they would email white Googlers to tell them to check themselves, check their privilege, understand that their words can hurt, etc. I want white Googlers to be on these emails as well."

Google said in a statement that it provides "a number of resources to all employees globally," which includes more than 150 resouces in its internal learning system. The company also outlined a number of mental health options it provides for all employees.

The second-most-liked comment on the message board called for an intensive racial justice training program called Sojourn, which was abruptly terminated in 2019, to be reinstated.

"If Google truly cares about creating a different future and for solidarity, bring back Sojourn and continue challenging the status quo," states the demand.

NBC News first reported the reductions to Google's diversity work last month, which included the termination of Sojourn and two other diversity training programs. The company also allegedly reduced staff dedicated to diversity and inclusion initiatives and increased reliance on outside contractors to build its diversity and inclusion programming, according to the current and former Google employees.

Eight current and former Google employees each told NBC News they believed the reductions were made to shield the company from a conservative backlash, following critical coverage from the right-wing website Breitbart in 2018.

Google denied that it made any changes to avoid being perceived as anti-conservative and said that its diversity and inclusion team size has not been reduced, but rather that the company is "increasing and scaling" its diversity and inclusion work.

The alleged reductions to Google's diversity work come at a time when employment in the tech industry is overwhelmingly dominated by white and Asian men. Efforts to diversify the industry have moved at a glacial pace, despite steep increases in hiring across major Silicon Valley firms. In 2019, Google's black employees accounted for just 3.3 percent of its overall workforce, up less than a percentage point from 2018. And Google isn't an outlier. Facebook's 2019 diversity report shows that only 3.8 percent of its workforce identified as African American, a small increase from 3.5 percent the previous year.

Current employees pointed to changes Google could make to address clear inequities at the company that fall along racial lines. Black representation at Google is concentrated in its massive contractor workforce, according to nine current and former Google employees. Contractors lack the job security of full-time workers, are typically on their own for health care, and usually receive a lower salary than their full-time counterparts, despite working alongside them often in the exact same jobs.

On the other end of the spectrum, only 2.6 percent of employees at Google in positions of leadership identify as black, according to the company's 2020 diversity report. The percentage is unchanged from the percentage of black employees in leadership from the year before and is lower than the percentage of black employees in the company's overall workforce, which accounted for 3.7 percent of Google employees in 2020.

A Google spokesperson said in a statement the company cannot comment on the composition of its contracting workforce, and the company doesn't provide diversity data about contractors. Its leadership diversity data is public.

In addition to its Allyship pages, Google has also offered break-out sessions where black employees are invited to come together to discuss their feelings and concerns about the nationwide demonstrations against police violence that targets black people, according to five current employees.

These sessions felt like the company was avoiding working towards correcting the ways racism is baked into the workplace at Google, which occur through the issuing of poor performance reviews for black employees and the high number of black contracted workers who are unable to onramp to full time employee status, the employees said.

On top of that, there are racist microaggressions that two current employees said are an everyday part of working at Google.

"The response has been to basically corral and isolate the black employees into one room and have them vent and talk to each other in the name of community support," one current employee familiar with Google's outreach to black workers said.

"What's missing is systemic and structural changes. There are no initiatives or comms given specifically to our non-black coworkers," she said.

A Google spokesperson said in a statement that these sessions were made available to black Google workers and their allies. The company said it plans to arrange more of these small group sessions in response to demand and that it's soliciting input from black employees at Google about what outreach and training the company can provide for white employees.

While the efficacy of diversity and inclusion training programs is a much-debated topic, two experts who have consulted on the recently terminated diversity training programs for Google but could not speak publicly due to non-disclosure agreements said the courses were among the most effective and challenging interventions ever created for tackling systemic racism at an organizational level.

Six employees at Google also alleged that the company has made it difficult for anyone interested in learning more about navigating racism at work to access resources that were previously available for employees.

For several weeks, the internal Google page that links to resources on diversity and inclusion training programs, and educational materials for employees has been redirected to the external website, Google.com/diversity, which is the primary home for the report Google issues annually detailing its efforts to diversify its workforce. The internal resource page is no longer accessible, according to images reviewed by NBC News and five current employees.

"Anyone who internally wants to access resources to learn about racism and racial privilege in the workplace now has nowhere to go," another Google employee said, commenting on the disappearance of the internal resource page and the unavailability of Allyship courses that the CEO is currently directing people to in his email to staff.

A Google spokeswoman confirmed that the main internal diversity and inclusion page that housed resources and the company's diversity goals was redirected to the external diversity report website in May and said that the company's internal network has "numerous curated results and pages" that appear if employees search for terms like "racial justice" or "diversity."

After NBC News published its investigation into Google's alleged reductions to its diversity and inclusion initiatives, 10 Democratic members of the House sent an inquiry to Pichai demanding answers about what exactly the company has cut and what diversity training resources are available for new hires. A spokesperson for Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., said the company and the House members continue to be in conversation.

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