Google is a data-obsessed company, but the recent cascade of employee activism can be hard to quantify. How do you take the temperature of a 90,000-person workforce? In November, employees gave Google’s senior leadership an undeniable signal when 20,000 workers walked out of their offices to protest sexual harassment policies. The results of Google’s latest annual survey on employee satisfaction, which were shared internally in January, offer another sign.
Asked whether they have confidence in CEO Sundar Pichai and his management team to “effectively lead in the future,” 74 percent of employees responded “positive,” as opposed to “neutral” or “negative,” in late 2018, down from 92 percent “positive” the year before. The 18-point drop left employee confidence at its lowest point in at least six years. The results of the survey, known internally as Googlegeist, also showed a decline in employees’ satisfaction with their compensation, with 54 percent saying they were satisfied, compared with 64 percent the prior year.
The drop in employee sentiment helps explain why internal debate around compensation, pay equity, and trust in executives has heated up in recent weeks—and why an HR presentation from 2016 went viral inside the company three years later.
The presentation, first reported by Bloomberg and reviewed by WIRED, dates from July 2016, about a year after Google started an internal effort to curb spending. In the slide deck, Google’s human-resources department presents potential ways to cut the company’s $20 billion compensation budget. Ideas include: promoting fewer people, hiring proportionately more low-level employees, and conducting an audit to make sure Google is paying benefits “(only) for the right people.” In some cases, HR suggested ways to implement changes while drawing little attention, or tips on how to sell the changes to Google employees. Some of the suggestions were implemented, like eliminating the annual employee holiday gift; most were not.
Another, more radical proposal floated inside the company around the same time didn’t appear in the deck. That suggested converting some full-time employees to contractors to save money. A person familiar with the situation said this proposal was not implemented. In July, Bloomberg reported that, for the first time, more than 50 percent of Google’s workforce were temps, contractors, and vendors.
The slide deck also includes suggestions for how Google might reinvest some of the savings from these cost cuts, including creating a stand-alone university building in the Bay Area called Google University, hiring more women and minorities, and giving new parents globally 16 weeks parental leave.
A Controversial Company-Wide Meeting
The 2016 presentation, which began circulating inside Google in mid-January, might not have made such an impact with workers if not for executive comments at a company-wide meeting a few days earlier that some employees considered tone-deaf. The meeting was to discuss the Googlegeist results, where managers attempted to put a positive spin on the decline in confidence. Prasad Setty, Google’s vice president of people operations, told the room that dissatisfaction around compensation came from employees who didn’t get promoted and don’t understand how compensation at Google works, according to people familiar with the matter.
The meeting sparked angry commentary about executives on Google’s internal message board for memes, according to employees. Some workers found management’s approach patronizing. One Google employee was frustrated with management’s evasiveness, but wondered if the employee backlash stemmed from the fact that executives were trying to explain individual compensation practices, when activist employees wanted answers to demands for pay equity for contractors, women, and others, first raised during the November walkout.
Once they saw the 2016 memo, employees zeroed in on the suggestion to reduce the number of people promoted by 2 percent—which meant that some qualified people might miss out on promotions because of a cost-cutting strategy they knew nothing about. “They have a deliberate and intentional, well-crafted narrative that they consistently rely on to continue taking advantage of people,” says a Google employee who requested anonymity. “The big lie is that the grueling interview process, performance review process, conversion process—that all of these things exist because we have a meritocratic system of rewards and the bar for excellence is really high.”
At another company-wide meeting a few days later to discuss compensation, Pichai and Setty sought to apologize for the memo and take a more candid approach with employees. Pichai said the document had never crossed his desk and that, if it had, he would have rejected the suggestion about promotions. Following the meeting, employees thanked Pichai for appearing and praised his candor on the internal meme message board.
High Pay, but New Questions
Google is consistently ranked as the best place to work in America. Median pay is $197,000, according to the most recent SEC filings; among the tech giants, only Facebook has a higher median pay. But recent media reports have given employees more information about how Google’s vast resources are allocated. A gender bias lawsuit filed in 2017 claims Google assigned new female hires to lower levels and denied them promotions.The November walkout was prompted by a New York Times report that Android founder Andy Rubin received a $90 million exit package, even after a sexual harassment complaint the company found credible.
The disclosure about contractors also rankled. Popular perception, even within Google, is that contractors are hired for service or nontechnical roles. But inside Alphabet, Google’s parent company, contractors work as engineers, recruiters, and even manage teams, Bloomberg reported. Anna, a contractor in Mountain View who requested to use only her first name, told WIRED that she doesn’t fit the image Google would like to project. She acts as a liaison between Google and outside vendors and says she is “paid really well.” Still, she does not have access to health care benefits or time off and she can’t attend parties for launches that she helped prepare. Perry, who conducted user research for Google in Seattle until his contract ended last week, said that managers may not know how much money contract workers are taking home.
Some of Google’s well-paid staffers, including organizers of the Google walkout, have been trying to draw more attention to practices they find exploitative, especially for a company that posted $21.8 billion in profit in the first nine months of last year. Their concerns echo the larger political movement around inequality, which has focused on tech titans and how their business practices have concentrated wealth in the hands of a few, even within their own companies.
The secrecy around compensation at Google has been a flashpoint before. In 2015, Erica Joy Baker, then an engineer at Google, started a spreadsheet for employees to share their salaries, as a way to combat the “chilling effect” that comes from discouraging employees to talk about their pay. Since the latest survey results were announced, employees have been adding their salaries to Baker’s spreadsheet, which is still active; meanwhile, contractors have been sharing their benefits and pay to compare agency practices.
Despite the overall good reviews, Pichai disappointed some employees with his answers on contractors. Asked why Google has contractors struggling to live in the Bay Area while he himself makes hundreds of millions, Pichai said it was a cost of living issue beyond Google’s control.
“They could totally afford to pay people a living wage,” Stephanie Parker, who works in policy at YouTube, told WIRED. “They’ve said multiple times, ‘We’re leading the market, what we do other companies follow.’ OK, then pay your people. Other companies will follow.”