Google was beloved as an employer for years. Then it laid off thousands by email
By Clare Duffy and Catherine Thorbecke, CNN
On the morning of January 20, one Google employee had to call tech support after getting hit with an unusual error message when they tried to log in to their work system.
Another employee’s manager was on vacation, so they had no one to reach out to when rumors of layoffs started to swirl.
A third was waking up to demands from their toddler when their phone started to buzz with text messages asking, “Are you safe?”
The three employees, who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity, were all among the 12,000 workers laid off by Google that day. While the extent of the layoffs was staggering, and by far the largest cuts in its history, it was the way the cuts were handled that stunned many inside and outside the company.
Google, which for years ranked as the top company to work for in the United States, laid off thousands of workers by e-mail. And not just any employees: Decades-long veterans of the company, at least one employee on health leave, and even an employee in labor with her second child were all cut, with little explanation. Employees were left scrambling to determine who had been let go and those affected had no opportunity to say goodbye to colleagues or pack up their desks, former workers told CNN.
To many, Google’s approach to layoffs, while not unique, seemed out of step with its renowned employee-centric culture. Google has for years been the prototype of a company that put its employees’ well-being top of mind, a fact almost as central to its public image as its core search engine. It lavished employees with large compensation packages and perks, from in-office climbing walls and free gourmet meals to at-work massages and childcare. The company engaged its staff in a common mission and encouraged them to freely share even critical thoughts at work. Known for its longtime mantra of “don’t be evil,” Google effectively operated with another, possibly synonymous ethos: “don’t be corporate.”
But for some former employees affected by the layoffs, the cuts were just the latest example of a culture shift they say has been underway at Google for years. A culture that prized openness and feted employees has increasingly been tested and eroded by internal scandals, walkouts, mounting public scrutiny, business demands and the reality that despite the best efforts of prior leaders, or more likely because of those efforts, Google has in fact become one very large corporation.
In interviews with CNN, more than half a dozen current and former Google employees, including several affected by the recent layoffs, described a company whose culture has been changing in big and subtle ways for years, including scaled back perks, reduced access to senior leadership and a focus on short-term business wins rather than long-term vision.
“At the end of the day, and probably at the beginning of the day, there is an abiding devotion to revenue and seemingly endless growth,” another employee affected by the January mass layoff told CNN. “And that comes without any thought to employees’ welfare in the end.”
Margaret O’Mara, a tech historian and professor at the University of Washington who has written about the evolution of Silicon Valley, said Google’s layoffs by email “reflect this problem that … Google has become such a big and, some would say, bureaucratic company.” That growth makes it “particularly” hard for Google “to maintain [its image] that ‘we’re a kinder, gentler capitalism, we’re Google-y, we’re people-centric.'”
Asked for comment on this story, Google pointed CNN to its blog post on the January layoffs. The company described the layoffs as a “difficult decision to set us up for the future” amid a difficult economic environment, and apologized that it would be “saying goodbye to some incredibly talented people we worked hard to hire and have loved working with.”
The changes at Google are emblematic of a larger evolution in tech as Silicon Valley matures and the founders who desired to do things differently have either been pressured to appease Wall Street or are replaced by executives from more corporate backgrounds. Several other, major tech companies have laid off thousands of workers in recent months, many from their more experimental, innovative divisions, as the industry confronts the reality that it may not be able to continue growing at breakneck speed forever. Tech companies may also be seeking to regain some leverage over employees after years in which — through worker activism, a tight labor market and a negative shift in the public perception of tech giants — workers maintained significant power.
“I think tech is maybe no longer immune,” one former employee said, adding that the layoffs marked “sort of the first move, or maybe the final move, of Google and a lot of the other tech companies becoming a little more normal.”
“A lot of us workers at the bottom are just confused about where tech is headed,” the former employee said.
‘Not a conventional company’
When Claire Stapleton joined Google in 2007, it was a relatively new public company and had just landed for the first time at the top of Fortune’s list of the top 100 companies to work for. During her early years there, she worked in marketing and became known as the “The Bard of Google” for the internal emails she sent celebrating the company’s culture.
“For me, it wasn’t the tube slides and climbing walls and the fact that they reimbursed your Wi-Fi, it really was for me, about the people and I cared about the mission and the sense that it was very creative and freewheeling,” Stapleton told CNN in an interview.
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin wrote in their first shareholder letter in 2004 that “Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.” Among the company’s core tenets laid out in that letter was that “our employees, who have named themselves Googlers, are everything,” and told shareholders to “expect us to add [employee] benefits rather than pare them down over time.”
The company emphasized the message that its employees were part of a larger mission to make the world a better, smarter place. Google has been known for allowing workers to spend 20% of their time on side projects that occasionally became real products. Longtime former employees recall when Page and Brin still hosted weekly all-hands meetings, known internally as “TGIFs.” Other former employees discussed a practice still in place to screen potential new employees for “Google-yness,” a personality fit with the company’s culture of collaboration and openness, during job interviews.
Google’s example set the stage for a wave of new-age companies that sought to emulate its example with open floorplans, in-office ping pong tables and luxe offsite events. But many point to 2015 as a turning point.
In March of that year, Ruth Porat, previously the chief financial officer of Morgan Stanley and one of the most powerful women on Wall Street, became Google’s CFO. Months later, Page and Brin announced that Sundar Pichai would take over as Google’s CEO, and that the company would be restructured to separate Google and the company’s other ambitious projects into subsidiaries of Alphabet. It was also around this time that Google removed “don’t be evil” from its code of conduct, replacing it with “do the right thing.”
“You hire bankers and CFO positions from Wall Street and then they tend to want to please Wall Street, and you move away a little bit from what maybe the founders had intended,” one former employee affected by the layoffs said. But, he added, the founders remained heavily invested in the company “so they sign off on this.”
The transition from Google to Alphabet set the stage for huge growth in the company’s share price, but it also changed the nature of what it meant to work for the tech giant, said Cameron Rout, a product manager who was among those laid off in January. Suddenly, many of the most ambitious projects were spun off into other business units.
“The problem was, suddenly, you didn’t work for a company that was sending stuff to space or building autonomous cars,” Rout said. Google was always, at its core, an advertising business, but he said, “there was an identity associated with Google where people know that you could be on the team making self-driving cars.”
Google’s culture and reputation were further challenged with a series of events in 2017 and 2018 when employees staged mass walkouts to protest what they said was a workplace culture that had turned a blind eye to sexual harassment and discrimination. Employees at the time also raised concerns about Google’s business dealings with the military, work in China and accusations that the company retaliated against workers who criticized it.
In the wake of the walkouts, Google made some positive changes, including ending forced arbitration for sexual harassment and abuse claims from employees. But it also further clamped down on the internal transparency and openness that had been its hallmark, according to Stapleton, who helped organize the walkouts and left Google in 2019 after the company allegedly retaliated against her. (Google said at the time that an internal investigation found no evidence of retaliation.)
Stapleton, who now writes the Tech Support newsletter aimed at workers in the industry, said that “one of the major turning points” was when Google rolled back broad access to documents in its Google intranet and to other workers’ public calendar events, making many of them need-to-know only following the protests.
“That’s a great example of the tension in the culture … everybody had open calendars forever,” she said, “that you could see anybody’s calendar was almost a flex of the culture, like, we’re so trusting and open. And then, all of a sudden, they wanted to just dramatically roll that back to protect the power.”
More recently, former employees say, Google has pulled back on material perks like in-office massages and travel and offsite meeting budgets. “I think a lot of us were hoping that it would be enough to keep our jobs because they were cutting all these expenses,” one laid off worker said.
But the bigger effect has been from shifts to a culture that once welcomed employee feedback and criticism.
One former employee, whose job was to work across various teams advocating for user well-being and balance in users’ relationship with technology, grew frustrated after repeatedly getting shut down and “cut out of conversations” and projects while trying to also push for employee wellness practices. The former employee eventually took a mental health leave for burnout.
“One of the things that I was really addressing in my leave, in terms of burnout, was this sense of trying to reconcile the difference between the talk about belonging,” the former employee told CNN, “and realizing that even with all the talk of inclusivity, I couldn’t actually show up as my whole, authentic self to work.”
The employee was still on mental health leave when they were notified they’d been laid off in January.
Anxiety and anger after layoffs
Google, like fellow tech companies that recently announced layoffs, positioned the cuts as an economic necessity.
Alphabet grew its workforce by more than 50,000 employees over the past two years as booming demand for its services during the pandemic boosted profits. But in more recent quarters, the company’s core digital ad business had slowed as recession fears caused advertisers to pull back their spending.
“The company is dealing with some real challenges, whether you have the legal and regulatory backdrop … and we have a macroeconomic backdrop that is at best uncertain,” said Scott Kessler, global tech sector lead at research firm Third Bridge. Alphabet in February posted a sharp decline in profits for the final three months of 2022, and earnings are expected to again fall year-over-year in the current quarter.
Despite some frustrations with how the layoffs were carried out, Google didn’t entirely abandon its commitment to employees in the process, Rout noted. Affected US employees received at least 16-weeks salary in severance, in addition to other benefits, among the most generous packages provided to recently laid off employees by tech giants.
Still, the layoffs have created insecurities and frustration among employees that remain at the company, according to current and former employees.
Hundreds of Google employees in Switzerland staged a walkout last week to protest layoffs, partly out of frustration with the lack of transparency. Meanwhile, in the United States, hundreds of additional workers have joined the grassroots Alphabet Workers Union since the layoffs were announced, according to Hayden Lawrence, a current Google engineer and member of AWU. Workers remaining at the company are “angry,” Lawrence said, and “scared” that more cuts could be on the way, with little guarantee that strong performance or a long tenure will protect them.
“There’s kind of a myth in tech that a lot of folks believe, that with a good work ethic and your own strong performance, you’ll be able to remain employed,” Lawrence told CNN. “But I think we’ve seen that you can’t just rely on individually doing your best, we need to collectively work together and organize.”
Google workers around the world over the weekend circulated a petition calling for better handling of the company’s layoffs, including requests to prioritize filling new positions with recently laid off employees and respecting scheduled parental and other family leave. “Nowhere have workers’ voices been adequately considered, and we know that as workers we are stronger together than alone,” reads the open letter to Pichai, which by Monday had been signed by more than 1,400 employees.
The heightened feeling of insecurity doesn’t just affect individual employees; it also risks chipping away whatever remains of Google’s original internal culture. “The damage to the intangibles is so significant,” Rout said. “It’s painfully obvious from the inside that there’s no way that whatever stock gain you’re going to gain [is worth] the damage to the culture when Google’s culture is its most important resource and everyone knows that.”
Former employees noted that the concept of “psychological safety” — which former Google HR head Laszlo Bock has said was key to the company’s culture by promoting collaboration and open sharing of information — is compromised when employees start to worry if they’re next.
“Google’s sort of saying that they don’t care about that anymore in the same way by the way that they’ve executed the layoffs and the way that they’re talking about cutting perks and that sort of thing,” Stapleton said. Even reports that Google has asked some employees to share desks amid office downsizing seems to reflect that shift, she said. “It’s like you’re not even like a full person at the company anymore. It was just so different before.”
Stapleton added that while Google will almost certainly remain a desirable place to work, as one of the world’s preeminent tech companies, the draw for employees may now be more about material perks like salary than the creativity and camaraderie that once defined the company’s culture. In other words, it will be perceived like a more conventional company.
About a month before the January layoffs, one former employee said Google painted “You Belong” on one of the walls in their working area. It was part of a larger internal campaign to build morale among employees.
“I remember the first time I saw that there, I was like, ‘that’s really cute,’ I loved the sticker so much I put it on my own laptop,” the employee said. But after the layoffs, the message felt like “a dark joke.”
“It’s like, you belong here, but also 12,000 of you are now not allowed to even be on the campus [anymore],” the employee said. “There was some disconnection there, some communication loss about the company and the direction we were going.”
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