“Don’t be angry”: Google’s iconic mantra is questioned in the work process

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    Google employees protested in San Francisco in 2019.

    James Martin / CNET

    Last month, software engineer Kyle Dhillon said during a labor court case that “don’t be angry,” Google’s famous corporate mantra, lured him to the tech giant five years ago.

    The Princeton alumni liked the motto because it showed that Google was aware of its own power. It underscored the delicate work that is needed to keep a big company like Google honest, Dhillon said.

    “Recognizing ‘don’t be angry’ as one of its core values ​​shows that we are aware that it is possible to get angry,” Dhillon told a National Labor Relations Board attorney when asked if the motto was in his decision to join the search giant. “And it would actually be quite natural.”

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    The brief admonition that Google has neglected in recent years is now at the center of an NLRB complaint against the company alleging the tech giant falsely fired five employees for their work engagement. Employees had protested against actions taken by Google, including the termination of a consulting firm with a history of anti-union efforts and its work with US Customs and Border Protection. Dhillon is not one of the laid-off employees, but he received one final warning from the company that the NLRB claims to be illegal.

    By untangling Google’s labor policy, the trials have shed light on the tech giant’s famous work culture, which in turn has led to a close look at Google’s iconic mantra. The result was public reflection on the company’s North Star against the backdrop of a high-profile legal forum.

    The tech giant has denied wrongdoing. The process, which began on August 23, is underway. One of the laid-off employees, Laurence Berland, has settled privately with the company.

    Google is not alone with an unorthodox mantra. Apple’s grammatically distinctive “Think different” advertising campaign was ultimately adopted as the de facto corporate motto. Facebook’s previous motto was “move fast and break things,” a phrase that evokes permission – even celebration – of recklessness. Still, Google’s corporate motto has always been an outlier. It’s at the same time tongue-in-cheek and fits a company that pioneered a revealing workplace culture with free food and slides in lobbies, but still powerfully celebratory.

    Google does not protest against me

    Google employees on strike in 2018.

    James Martin / CNET

    And with that came a higher standard, said Irina Raicu, director of the Internet Ethics Program at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

    “It raised employee expectations that the company would be different,” said Raicu. “It invited a certain type of employee to join.”

    Google did not respond to a request for comment.

    “A blow to other companies”

    As with every piece of great folklore, different accounts are told of who coined “Don’t be angry”. But credit is usually given to Paul Buchheit and Amit Patel, two early Google employees. Buchheit, the creator of Gmail, said he came up with the slogan at a meeting in early 2000 to help define the company’s values.

    “I sat there trying to think of something really different and not one of those usual ‘Strive for Excellence’ statements,” said Buchheit in 2007. “It’s also a bit of a bump on a lot of other” companies, especially ours Competitors who, in our opinion, were exploiting users in some way at the time. ”

    After the meeting, Patel began writing the sentence on whiteboards on Google’s Mountain View, California campus to capture the tagline. It did. The phrase eventually made it into Google’s Code of Conduct. It is one of the most famous corporate slogans in the world today.

    Buchheit and Patel did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

    “It raised employee expectations that the company would be different. It invited a certain type of employee to join.”

    Irina Raicu, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University

    Since its inception, the motto has evolved from a guiding principle for product development and guidelines to a rally for Google’s critics, some of the toughest being the company’s own people. Employees say the mantra has been the linchpin of some of the most notable workforce protests. These include activism regarding now-closed plans for a censored Chinese search product, a deal with the Pentagon for technology that could improve the accuracy of drone strikes, and the company’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations targeting executives. At some demonstrations, workers held up signs saying “Don’t be angry”.

    As Google got bigger and more controversial, its devotion to the mantra has been questioned again and again. Last week, The New York Times and The Guardian reported that Google knowingly underpaid temporary workers but chose not to fully rectify the situation because it feared negative press coverage. In response, Google employees wrote an open letter to corporate management, including CEO Sundar Pichai, asking the company to pay the $ 100 million in arrears it allegedly owes its temporary workers.

    “For the majority of Google employees, ‘don’t be angry’ is an excuse,” the letter said. “It’s a way to reap the financial benefits of unconditional public trust by reassuring investors, users, and government agencies that Google is trustworthy and friendly – while successfully underpaid and mistreated the majority of its employees.”

    “It is not enough not to be angry”

    In 2004, when Google was preparing to go public, co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin explained the motto in an interview with Playboy. The interview is included in Google’s prospectus submission.

    Brin: As for “don’t be angry,” we’ve tried to define exactly what it means to be a force for good – always to do the right and ethical. Ultimately, “don’t be angry” seems like the easiest way to sum it up.

    Side: Apparently people like it better than “Be good”.

    Brin: It’s not enough not to be angry. We also try to be good actively.

    This attitude still resonates with Google’s rank and name today. In the labor court proceedings, Sophie Waldman, one of the allegedly wrongly dismissed employees, said that she was primarily attracted to the company. “That was an important factor,” said Waldman. “It has always been very important to me that my work has a positive or, at worst, a neutral impact on the world.”

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    The Google leadership mentioned “don’t be angry” in the company’s 2004 listing for IPO.

    Getty

    Waldman said she kept the phrase in mind as she continued her daily work to improve search results. Other staff also talked about the practical use of the mantra as opposed to just a dream from heaven.

    “It sounded like the company had a certain conscience,” said Eddie Gryster, a software engineer at Google. “To me at the time it meant that Google was basically saying, ‘Hey, this is good business for us, not being angry,’ and doing the right thing helps us maintain user trust.”

    Some people fear that, with its trillion dollar valuation and over 135,000 full-time employees, Google is straying from that ethos. After Page and Brin founded Alphabet, a holding company for Google, in 2015, the term was moved from the beginning of the Google Code of Conduct to the end. Critics saw this as a downgrading of the principle, an afterthought in the last sentence of a 6,500-word document. “And remember … don’t be angry, and if you see something that you think is wrong, say it out loud!” the guidelines say.

    The broader Alphabet Code of Conduct doesn’t mention this phrase.

    The cynical view is that such a mantra is out of date in modern Silicon Valley as the industry struggles to curb disinformation, electoral interference and other abuses. Still, Google employees have taken “don’t be angry” to heart, as well as the last two words of the revised code of conduct: speak. They did this by taking legally protected action, argues the NLRB.

    Employees say the mantra is at the core of why Google is on trial in the first place.

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