Silicon Valley Giants Built an Open Culture. Now Workers Are Holding Them to It.

Many Silicon Valley companies have long prized transparency with workers, sharing access to research, data, presentations and recorded town halls. Now, that openness appears to be showing signs of strain.

More internal debates and critiques of the tech giants are spilling out into public view. The most extreme examples are leaks of sensitive information, which have led the largest tech companies and their workforces to tighten the reins on information and regard each other with new wariness.

At Netflix Inc., NFLX 1.78% some employees staged a walkout Wednesday to protest the company’s handling of an uproar over a Dave Chappelle comedy special. In a recent email to staff, first reported by The Verge, Apple Inc. chief executive Tim Cook said that people who share confidential information outside the company don’t belong there. Earlier this year, Google fired an employee from its artificial intelligence team over allegedly sharing internal documents. And Facebook Inc. last week told employees it would limit who can view discussions on internal platforms about certain topics, including platform safety, after a former employee gathered documents that formed the foundation of The Wall Street Journal Facebook Files series.

These developments come as some tech employees publicly and privately question their work and the effects it may have on society, according to interviews with current and former employees of the companies. Some tech workers say the increased reliance on tools such as Slack, Discord and Zoom in the remote-work era has led to communicating with colleagues they otherwise wouldn’t.

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Those in the tech industry say most employees they talk with seem happy in their roles. Workers say the number of their colleagues who are disillusioned and speaking out is a small minority that is growing and getting louder. A recent poll of nearly 500 Facebook employees by the professional network Blind found that 74% said they believed management’s recent defenses of the company and just 22% said they felt Facebook puts profits over safety. However, 45% feel the federal government should impose regulations on the company.

Tracy Clayton, a Facebook spokesman, says the company “values expression, open discussion and a culture built on respect and inclusivity.”

‘Are we improving the world?’

When he joined Google about a decade ago, Xavid Pretzer, a senior engineer, was drawn to the company’s freewheeling, open culture and the idea that he could make a difference. Questions, feedback and debate used to be more encouraged, said Mr. Pretzer, a steward of the Alphabet Workers Union, which formed during the pandemic to organize workers and give them the ability to speak out about the company. It had about 800 members as of January.

“People often get attracted to these companies by the idea that you’re not just doing it for a paycheck. You’re trying to make the world a better place,” he said.

These days, Mr. Pretzer said that some employees feel their pointed questions are now getting more vague answers in town halls where feedback and transparency used to be the norm. The change has eroded trust between leadership and some employees, Mr. Pretzer said. If companies don’t provide safe and meaningful ways to address ethical concerns internally, he added, “I think some people feel like their only option is to go externally.”

Google declined to comment. This week, during the Journal’s Tech Live conference, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that employee activism pushes companies to be more accountable. Mr. Pichai is also CEO of Google parent Alphabet Inc.

“CEOs need to embrace the fact that in the modern workplace employees want to have a say in where they work,” he said, though he added that companies do ultimately make decisions and not all employees will agree with them.

Mr. Pichai, CEO of Google and its parent Alphabet Inc., speaks at the Journal’s Tech Live conference on Oct. 18.

Photo: The Wall Street Journal

Apple has long been known for being more secretive than some of its Silicon Valley rivals. Employees have in the past year publicly objected to new hires and accused the company of pay inequity and discrimination. Earlier this month, the company fired Janneke Parrish, an employee in Austin who helped lead employee organizing activities branded with the hashtag “AppleToo,” according to her attorney, Vincent White. Mr. White said he and Ms. Parrish believe the termination was retaliation for her decision to speak out about pay equity and advocacy related to union organizing.

Another former Apple employee, Ashley Gjøvik, has filed multiple charges with the National Labor Relations Board that include allegations the memo from Mr. Cook discouraging the release of confidential information and parts of Apple’s employee handbook violated labor laws. She said she was terminated in September.

The Verge first reported on both firings at Apple.

“We take all concerns seriously and we thoroughly investigate whenever a concern is raised and, out of respect for the privacy of any individuals involved, we do not discuss specific employee matters,” said Apple spokesman Josh Rosenstock.

Members of Congress have likened Facebook and Instagram’s tactics to that of the tobacco industry. WSJ’s Joanna Stern reviews the hearings of both to explore what cigarette regulation can tell us about what may be coming for Big Tech. Photo illustration: Adele Morgan/The Wall Street Journal

Facebook’s circle of trust with employees has long started on day one, with new hires typically given access to company information such as internal documents, employee discussion groups and records of town halls. CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s comments in weekly all-hands meetings usually stayed within the company. In recent years, more news about company-wide meetings has been made public and earlier this month the company started clamping down on information shared internally.

Tim Carstens, a senior software engineer who left Facebook last month, said that working at a large tech company means accepting both the benefits and the complications that come with massive influence. Tensions arise between leadership and workers as they reconcile how to serve both the market and society, he added.

“Are we improving the world or are we making it worse?” Mr. Carstens asked, adding that malevolent actors have been able to exploit platforms and companies have struggled to stop them. “The problems we’re talking about are extremely relevant today, but for us engineers it’s not obvious how to solve them.”

New drama at Netflix

Netflix’s leaders, who have long emphasized employee candor and internal debate, have been challenged by the backlash to the Dave Chappelle comedy special, which some employees and subscribers say is offensive to the transgender community. The company fired an employee who it said had leaked confidential financial information related to the comedy special. Netflix Co-Chief Executive Ted Sarandos initially acknowledged in emails to employees the concerns of some staff while defending artistic freedom of expression. He later said in an interview that he’d “screwed up” with his response to employees and should have recognized that some of them were really hurting.

On Wednesday, a group of demonstrators, including some Netflix staff, gathered outside one of Netflix’s Los Angeles offices to protest the comedy special, while a group of employees released demands of management. Netflix said in a statement: “We value our trans colleagues and allies, and understand the deep hurt that’s been caused. We respect the decision of any employee who chooses to walk out, and recognize we have much more work to do both within Netflix and in our content.”

One former tech employee wants to make it easier for employees to make their concerns public. Ifeoma Ozoma, who last year alleged unequal pay and discrimination during her time at Pinterest, recently released an online handbook for tech workers who are considering disclosing information they believe is in the public interest.

Ms. Ozoma, who also has worked at Google and Facebook, said she’s heard from a stream of tech employees, along with friends or family members of tech workers, all curious about finding a lawyer or working with journalists, she said.

Ms. Ozoma, above, released an online handbook for tech workers who are considering disclosing information they believe is in the public interest.

Photo: Adria Malcolm

Ms. Ozoma said when companies are subject to new scrutiny, they often work to find out who’s sharing information. At Pinterest, she said her Slack messages were reviewed. Pinterest didn’t comment.

Changing public perceptions of companies such as Facebook and Google may be wearing on some younger workers, analysts and former workers say.

“A couple years ago if you said you worked for one of those companies, nine out of 10 people are like, ‘Oh, that’s awesome.’ Now it’s five out of 10 people say, ‘That’s awesome,’ and five out of ten people say, ‘Oh really? That company does bad things,” said Brian Kropp, chief of research in Gartner’s human resources practice.

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, issued a memo, first reported by the New York Times, to employees last month offering pointers for talking with friends and family who may question their work at Facebook and the company’s influence on political discourse, among other things.

“We’ll continue to be asked difficult questions. And many people will continue to be skeptical of our motives,” wrote Mr. Clegg. “That’s what comes with being part of a company that has a significant impact in the world.”

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