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What should HR do when 3,000 employees protest?

A petition from over 3,000 Google employees urged the company to reconsider a contract. HRM looks at the scenario as a case study.

Usually when your employees organise and sign a petition you’re looking at some sort of an industrial relations dispute. The last thing you expect is for them to be concerned with your company’s image. But that’s exactly what happened to Google.

In a protest letter to CEO Sundar Pichai, over 3,000 employees expressed their concern that the tech giant’s involvement in a US military project could be harmful. The letter begins, “We believe that Google should not be in the business of war.”

It goes on to ask that “Google draft, publicize and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.” Their reasons are that doing the opposite will “irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent”. They also outline their belief that the tech company’s moral responsibility cannot be outsourced: “Google’s stated values make this clear: Every one of our users is trusting us. Never jeopardize that. Ever.

Fear of a robot war

There is a genuine concern from some of the world’s smartest people, as well as its most powerful, that AI is transforming our militaries and will continue to do so in a way that nobody is prepared for.

Russian President Vladimir Putin flagged the development of AI as a grave concern for everybody. “Whomever becomes a leader in this sphere will be the master of the world,” he told students in September 2017.

In the Google case, employees concern was with Project Maven, where a customised AI surveillance engine uses image recognition the effectiveness of drones. This can be alarming if you align it with US military thinking as espoused by defense secretary Jim Mattis, who according to the New York Times has said a central goal is to increase “lethality”.

Mass damage control

Last year the memo of a single employee who disagreed with Google’s diversity policy drew worldwide attention. More recently HRM wrote about the changing ethical landscape of HR, and some commenters felt that in general an employee should be allowed to speak their mind but ultimately it was up to them to leave, not for the company to change. But there’s a difference between one staff member taking a moral stand, and thousands.

Google’s response to the former happening was to fire the complaining employee. To the latter they are obviously treading more carefully.

Firstly, they publicly emphasised their company’s policy on encouraging employee input. Then, without referring directly to the letter, Pichai said in a statement that “any military use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns” and that “we’re actively engaged across the company in a comprehensive discussion of this important topic.”

Google’s argument for continuing to work with the military is that their technology is being used for non-offensive purposes. In the particular case of Maven, it’s being used to “flag images for human review and is intended to save lives and save people from having to do highly tedious work.”

So in a nutshell Google’s plan for responding to their thousands of employees seems to have been:

  • Emphasise that they’re a company that values employees, which sends the right signal to current staff and future candidates
  • Answer the accusation, without labelling it an accusation
  • Maintain the contract (and future military work) but ease tensions by saying it’s part of an ongoing discussion

What do you think of the response? Did Google get it right, or could they have done better?

Discover HR’s role in the ethical decision-making process with AHRI’s new corporate in-house training course ‘HR Ethics’.

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Victoria Wilson
Victoria Wilson

Most companies don’t place a value on reputational risk until they have a disaster that eviscerates them. Google is doing the same by chasing current fiscal gain over long term talent attraction. Google’s response has essentially been “we’re going to continue this and not do anything substantial to respond to your concerns other than get our marketing department to work out how to put lipstick on this pig”. Whether Google likes it or not they are only as good as the smart people working for them. Go hard enough against someone’s values and they will make a decision to be… Read more »


I think that there is a basic unwillingness to address the other side of this issue. While there may be many in the company that object to military application, the truth is that most scientific advances have been made in the last century as part of military projects. A large portion of R&D is always attached to defence. Refusal to engage with military can also cause a large backlash as many programmers and engineers start off in the military and therefore do not have a particularly negative view of defence but an actual positive one and would see this move,… Read more »


It is strange that Google has a “policy” of encouraging employee input and fire someone who has a dissenting view instead of engaging in dialogue. I also wonder why people would feel the need to rally 3000 signatures to have their voice heard? HR needs to understand the barriers to cognitive diversity and psychological safety in the organisation and remove them. Quickly, inclusively and with compassion

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