Sign In

Communications of the ACM

News

Ethics in Technology Jobs


View as: Print Mobile App ACM Digital Library Full Text (PDF) In the Digital Edition Share: Send by email Share on reddit Share on StumbleUpon Share on Hacker News Share on Tweeter Share on Facebook
mountain path and sunshine in clouds

Credit: Getty Images

Organized protests against companies are hardly a new phenomenon, as people have boycotted or protested both corporate policies and actions tor years. For example, a global protest of international agro-chemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto in 2013 saw coordinated marches across 52 countries and 436 cities. In 2010, thousands of people in the U.S. protested against oil giant BP for its role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. And in the late 1990s, U.S. gun owners protested against gun manufacturers Colt Manufacturing Company and Smith & Wesson for their perceived cooperation with then-President Bill Clinton's gun control efforts.

Yet many of the corporate protests that have occurred against technology companies over the past year were marked by a distinct difference: they were often organized by, led, or coordinated with workers at the very companies being protested. The impetus for these walkouts appears to be largely two issues: the presence of a culture of inequality at technology companies, and the use of technology for what workers consider to be unethical or harmful activities.

Although there is precedent for tech workers protesting against their employers, such as when defense workers in the 1980s pushed back against their employers' participation in the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative, colloquially known as Star Wars, the difference is that tech workers feel more empowered to speak out today.

"[Workers] actually see that their words and action can have a real impact on a broader scale," says Mehran Sahami, a professor of computer science at Stanford University. Sahami points to the success former Uber employee Susan Fowler had with blog posts she wrote that detailed a culture of sexual harassment at the ride-sharing giant, which ultimately led to changes at the company and the dismissal of its former CEO, Travis Kalanick. "Fowler's actions showed that even individual tech workers, by speaking up, can actually have a large effect on the organization that they're in or were formerly in," Sahami says.


"Silicon Valley companies lead the way in ... science and technology, but when it comes to issues of privacy, creating inclusive workplaces, and ethics, they seem to be devolving."


It is not just a culture of misogyny that is irritating workers and spurring them into action; a lack of transparency is also a key catalyst for workers to band together to make their feelings known. One example was Google's handling of a $90-million exit payment to Andy Rubin, a key executive of the company and the creator of the Android mobile operating system. Upon Rubin's departure from the company in 2014, Google failed to disclose it had received a complaint that Rubin had committed an act of sexual misconduct against another employee, and that an investigation had confirmed its veracity. In October 2018, a report in The New York Times made these details public.

Upon that disclosure, Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent a memo to staff noting that the company had taken "an increasingly hard line" on inappropriate conduct at work and had fired 48 people, including 13 senior managers, in the previous two years, without giving any of them exit packages. Just prior to a November 1 protest by employees known as "The Walkout for Real Change," Pichai sent out a follow-up note apologizing "for the past actions and the pain they have caused employees" and indicating that employees would be supported if they protested.

Despite the apology, thousands of Google employees around the world walked out on November 1, and organizers issued a statement demanding more transparency from Google around its handling of sexual harassment, an end to pay and opportunity inequality, and more employee empowerment overall. In addition, the group requested that an employee representative be appointed to the company's board and that Google end "forced arbitration" in cases of harassment and discrimination, a practice that prevents employees from taking cases to court.

"Silicon Valley companies lead the way in the fields of science of and technology, but when it comes to issues of privacy, creating inclusive workplaces, and ethics, they seem to be devolving," says Congresswoman Jackie Speier, who represents San Francisco and parts of Silicon Valley, and publicly supported the walkouts.

Lack of diversity is a problem in the tech industry. For example, nearly 70% of Google employees are men and 53% are non-Hispanic whites, according to the Google Diversity Annual Report 2018. Among leadership roles, the numbers within Google are even less diverse, as 67% are white non-Hispanic and 75% are men.

"On the issue of diversity, I continue to hear from women and other workers in the tech industry who are harassed, bullied, assaulted, and ignored because they weren't frat buddies with the CEO or turned down sexual overtures," Speier says. "It's a cultural crisis, and as I've made clear to the tech companies in and around my district, the industry will never reach its full potential until this crisis is addressed."

Google is hardly the only company being subjected to protests from its own employees; others also have protested how technology being developed by the companies they work for is being used by government entities. Representatives from Amazon, Sales-force, and Microsoft signed petitions and held demonstrations objecting to how their work is being used for surveillance, or to separate families at the U.S. border. According to Leigh Hafrey, a Senior Lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management and author of the book The Story of Success: Five Steps to Mastering Ethics in Business, these protest actions are occurring because workers are more aware of questions of social justice and what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

"We've had a lot of social movement over the past several decades that raised awareness and made people conscious of what can potentially happen within organizations," Hafrey says.

Indeed, thousands of workers at Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Sales-force have signed petitions asking their respective management teams to cancel or withdraw from contracts with U.S. government agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and the Department of Defense. The public nature of these protests and petitions may be having an effect; in June 2019, Google employees succeeded in getting the company to agree not to renew its deal to help the Pentagon build artificial intelligence tools for drone warfare.

Other protests have been less than successful. Salesforce.com employees gathered twice in 2018 in front of the company's headquarters in San Francisco to protest the firm's multimillion-dollar contract with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. While CEO Marc Benioff condemned the agency's separation of families at the border, he refused to cancel the contract, and the company still supplies software to the agency, despite continuing pressure from workers.

Ultimately, workers may be able to make their voices heard, but management at many large companies are likely to be more focused on how their decisions impact the company's bottom line, and so may not always bow to the wishes of employees.

Ceren Cubukcu, an employment consultant and author of Make Your American Dream A Reality: How to Find a Job as an International Student in the U.S., says employees may simply decide to work for another company if they have a problem with a technology company's actions, rather than protesting to get their employer to change course.

"In some projects, especially for IT/high tech projects, you don't even know what the whole project will be at the end because you work in teams, and only the top management knows about the whole project," Cubukcu says. "If you don't feel comfortable in your job or don't like your work, you can always try to switch to another job, and the company can always replace you with some other employee."

That said, the bargaining position for many tech workers is perhaps stronger than it ever has been in history, given that programmers, software engineers, and data scientists that are talented, hardworking, and reliable are relatively hard to find and keep.

"Finding good technical people is difficult," Sahami says, "so companies pay more attention to their workers because they realize that these are highly skilled people who are difficult to find. If those tech workers leave, it's going to have a serious impact on the productivity of the company."

Even young people who have yet to establish themselves in their careers are trying to flex their muscles, shunning companies they don't agree with during the interview and hiring process. A Buzzfeed article published in August 2018 included several accounts of tech workers that declined lucrative positions at major technology companies because they disagreed with the company's practices or ethical positions, relating to either the products or services the company builds, the customers to which the companies sell, or how the companies treat their own employees.

"Questions have always been raised about what companies do and why they do it," Hafrey says. "We're just seeing it in a way that I think maybe we were not previously considering because we were enamored of the bright future that our recent technologies promised us, and we are now realizing the downside or potential downsides of some of those technologies."

Sahami adds that there may be a generational reason for the increasing level of activism in the technology field. "There's lots of data that shows, for example, that many in the younger generation look for work that they believe that has value and that's more important to them than just the paycheck; it's believing that they're having some sort of social impact," Sahami says.

"There's been a lot of bad behavior, and not just in the tech industry, but more broadly around issues of sexual harassment that has been in some sense tolerated for a long time. And it shouldn't have been tolerated, but over time, culture changes and people are willing to speak up more about that being unacceptable and so, generationally, we begin to call out more and more of these bad behaviors that's been happening and try to rectify it."

* Further Reading

Fowler, S.
Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber, Feb. 19, 2017, https://www.susanjfowler.com/blog/2017/2/19/reflecting-on-one-very-strange-year-at-uber

Keller, M., and Larsen, K.
'Enough is enough': Google workers in San Francisco, Mountain View, Sunnyvale walk out in protest of treatment of women, November 1, 2018, ABC 7 News San Francisco, https://abc7news.com/business/enough-is-enough-bay-area-google-workers-walk-out-in-protest/4596806/

Brown D.
"Google Diversity Annual Report 2018." Diversity.Google. https://static.googleusercontent.com/media/diversity.google/en//static/pdf/Google_Diversity_annual_report_2018.pdf

Back to Top

Author

Keith Kirkpatrick is principal of 4K Research & Consulting, LLC, based in Lynbrook, NY, USA.


©2019 ACM  0001-0782/19/06

Permission to make digital or hard copies of part or all of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and full citation on the first page. Copyright for components of this work owned by others than ACM must be honored. Abstracting with credit is permitted. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers, or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or fee. Request permission to publish from [email protected] or fax (212) 869-0481.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2019 ACM, Inc.


 

No entries found

Sign In for Full Access
» Forgot Password? » Create an ACM Web Account
Article Contents:
  • Article
  • Author