Google Used to Tell Workers 'Don't Be Evil.' Now It Just Wants Them to Be Quiet, Former Top Exec Says

It was during a diversity and inclusion meeting organized by Google's human resources team that Ross LaJeunesse, then a top executive at the company, says he realized something had gone deeply wrong within its workplace culture.

In the meeting which took place in September 2017, LaJeunesse, Google's former global head of international relations, and the rest of his policy team in Washington, D.C., had been asked to separate themselves into groups based on the most obvious "stereotypes" they might fit into.

According to LaJeunesse's account, each group was assigned a different room, where they were expected to gather. He reluctantly found himself in the "Homos" room, while other employees were labelled as "Asians" or "Brown people."

From the outset, LaJeunesse, who was responsible for much of Google's human rights programming at the time, said he was baffled by the activity. But, he told Newsweek, he knew that Google's HR team was meant to include some of the best minds in the business, so at first he played along.

"I'm watching all this play out and thinking, 'Ok, we're Google. We have a huge diversity team at Google. They know what they're doing. They must know what they're doing,'" he said.

Perhaps, LaJeunesse thought, the groups were going to talk about "how we are more than just our identity and how we have many identities. I was really trying to give them the benefit of the doubt."

Instead, Google workers were asked to shout out all the potential words people might use to describe each stereotype. For LaJeunesse's group, adjectives like "promiscuous" and "effeminate" began to ring out.

That was when he decided to put his foot down, telling his colleagues the activity was over. Not only was he offended by the undertaking, but being the most senior participant in the room, he said he also felt a responsibility to take action. "I just stopped it. I said, 'Alright, this is done." It was, but not before another Google employee could call out that the stereotypes about LaJeunesse's group were "all true."

Upset by the incident, LaJeunesse quickly learned that other participants had been left equally disturbed. He said one worker, a woman of color, was in tears as she described how she had been left humiliated by the activity. Another colleague who had recently joined the company said: "I thought this was Google. That was f***ed up."

"I thought, 'We really have a problem here," LaJeunesse said. He went to HR and asked that they address the issue and speak with employees, and in particular the worker who was left in tears over the incident, about the events he said unfolded that day.

Before the company took any action, however, the former head of international relations was accidentally copied in on an email thread, which has been seen by Newsweek, in which an HR member pointed out that LaJeunesse had previously raised concerns about Google diversity programming before questioning whether he might have fished for complaints about the September activity. The HR member then asked the email's intended recipient to do some "digging" into the situation.

When the intended recipient, who had accidentally copied LaJeunesse into the thread realized the error, they apologized and offered assurance that the issue was being looked into.

However, around one year later, LaJeunesse said Google started a "reorganization" within the company and as a part of that, in February 2019, he was told that he would no longer have a place within the company, despite having received glowing performance reviews for the 11 years he had dedicated to Google.

When he took action and hired counsel, he said Google told him that there had been a misunderstanding and that the company had wanted to offer him another role as a foreign policy institutions leader. In LaJeunesse's view, "They offered me this little job to try to buy my silence."

Instead of taking it, the former Google executive decided it was time to walk, telling Newsweek that he felt the technology giant had shuffled him out of his role during its reorganization because higher-ups had grown tired of his dissent.

The former Google executive does not have evidence to prove that, however, and while Google did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Newsweek, company spokesperson Jenn Kaiser recently insisted to The Washington Post that LaJeunesse lost his role due to the "reorganization of our policy team" and nothing more.

LaJeunesse had his final days at Google in May 2019 and ended up moving back to Maine, where he grew up, with his husband. And in November, just months after leaving the technology giant, he launched a run for Senate, seeking to unseat Sen. Susan Collins.

LaJeunesse said he was well aware of how the optics of his decision to speak out about Google weeks after launching his campaign might appear: "Some people are going to look at this and say I'm telling this story to get publicity or something like that, but I want people to know this, for me, is about doing the right thing."

"Doing the right thing," the Senate contender said, has always been important to him. "I came out when I was 20 in 1990, which was not an easy thing to do. I did it because I wanted to live a life of truth and I decided that I would never live in a closet again, that I would always live a life of truth."

When he first started at Google, LaJeunesse said he believed the company was strongly aligned with his values.

"They really sort of recruited people and recruited me based on this idea that it was a company where you can really change the world and do good work," he said. "I believed it and I think it was true for a while. It's really sad to see this company I really believed in and worked really hard at just completely lose its way and to see what it's become now."

What exactly Google has become isn't entirely clear; a technology giant that once lived by the unofficial motto, "Don't be evil" has, at least over the past year, become a corporation accused of firing workers for dissent.

In a recent interview with Newsweek, one of those fired workers, Kathryn Spiers, accused Google of unfairly terminating her contract to silence her after she created an internal notification that would remind workers of their rights.

"I expected it to be controversial, but I didn't expect to be fired over it," said Spiers, who has filed a complaint over the incident with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board.

Her termination was the company's fifth controversial firing in the span of less than a month, with a group of workers dubbed the "Thanskgiving four" dismissed from their roles around Thanksgiving after they spoke out about Google's work culture and business ties.

While LaJeunesse said his own experiences within Google made it clear to him him that the company had, at some point, drifted away from the values it once sought to represent, he said he cannot pinpoint when or why exactly the company veered off course.

"There wasn't a singular moment," he said. "I would use the analogy of the frog, where the water slowly gets warmed and you don't realize it until it's a little too late and you find yourself in boiling water."

With each controversy that surrounded Google, including its decision to work on Project Dragonfly, an effort to launch a censored search platform in China, and Project Maven, providing technology to the Pentagon to support drone use, LaJeunesse said he felt the heat rise. In the end, his only recourse was to escape when, for him at least, the water really started to boil.

LaJeunesse said he is far from alone in believing that Google is headed down the wrong path. There are still people working there, he said, "who are scared, quite frankly… When you start firing people for speaking up, that has an impact."

The message Google leaders used to try to send to workers, LaJeunesse said, was to "act like an owner. [That] was always something that I would tell my team. We would tell everybody to act like an owner and take responsibility, that you're not just a cog in a giant wheel; you're being hired to speak up and share your views."

That is no longer the resounding message at Google, LaJeunesse lamented. Instead of being asked to speak up, the best way of keeping a job at Google might just be to keep quiet, he said.

Looking back on the optimism he felt when he first started at Google, the feeling now "is just one of profound sadness and disappointment," LaJeunesse said.

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The Google logo adorns the outside of their NYC office Google Building 8510 at 85 10th Ave on June 3, 2019 in New York City. A former top Google executive says the company has drifted away from the values it once stood for. Drew Angerer/Getty