Eric Risberg / AP
Three former Google employees sued the company, alleging that Google’s “Don’t be mean” motto amounts to a contractual obligation the tech giant violated.
By the time the company hired the three software engineers, Rebecca Rivers, Sophie Waldman and Paul Duke, they signed rules of conduct that included a “Don’t be mean” provision, according to the lawsuit.
The trio said they believed they would behave in accordance with this principle when they organized Google employees against controversial projects, such as working for customs and protecting U.S. borders under the Trump administration. Workers circulated a petition calling on Google to publicly pledge not to work with CBP.
Google fired the three employees, as well as a fourth, Laurence Berland, in November 2019 for “clear and repeated violations” of the company’s data security policies. The four deny having viewed and disclosed confidential documents as part of their activism.
In the lawsuit filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court on Monday, Rivers, Waldman and Duke argue they should receive damages because the company allegedly retaliated against them when they tried to lure the company. attention to the fact that Google “does evil”, says the lawsuit.
Convincing a jury of what exactly constitutes “evil” can be an uphill battle. But plaintiffs’ attorney Laurie Burgess said it was not beyond what the courts regularly have to decide.
“There are all kinds of contractual clauses that a jury is required to interpret: ‘don’t be mean’ is not so ‘out there’ that it’s unenforceable,” she said. ” Since the Google contract tells employees that they can be fired for breaking the ‘don’t be mean’ motto, that must make sense. ”
Google did not immediately return a request for comment.
The principle âDon’t be evilâ is often attributed to Paul Buchheit and Amit Patel, two of Google’s first employees. The phrase was written on every company’s whiteboard during its early years, according to the 2008 book. Google planet by Randall Stross.
âIt became the only value of Google that the public knew well, although it was formally expressed at Google in a less pungent way: ‘You can make money without doing harm,’ Stross wrote.
In 2018, reports suggested that Google had removed âDon’t be evilâ from its code of conduct. But an updated version, dated September 2020, shows that the sentence remains. It is not known when the currency was reintroduced.
The lawsuit comes amid an increase in union activism at tech companies like Apple Facebook, Netflix and Amazon. A group of Google workers, which are owned by Alphabet, formed a minority union earlier this year around issues such as sexual harassment, its work with the Pentagon and the treatment of its large contract staff.
The National Labor Relations Board is investigating the layoffs of the three Google employees who sued Monday. The council wrote in May that Google “may have violated” federal labor law by “illegally discharging” Rivers, Duke and Waldman. The NLRB case is awaiting a final resolution.
Meanwhile, software engineers say Google should be punished for breaking its own moral code.
“Google realized that ‘don’t be mean’ was costing it both money and getting workers organized,” the ex-Googlers said in a statement on Monday. “Rather than admit that their position had changed and lose the resulting corporate image benefits, Google laid off employees who lived on the currency.”
Editor’s note: Google is one of the financial backers of NPR.