Google Workers’ ‘Business of War’ Letter Pits Employee Values Against Bottom Line

Some Googlers are going on the offensive against one of the tech giant’s most powerful customers—the U.S. Department of Defense.

More than 3,100 Google employees have signed a letter asking the company to halt its work on Project Maven, a Defense Department initiative that uses artificial intelligence to analyze drone footage.

The letter, which was sent to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, starts with the stark line “We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” and urges the company to not only abandon its work on the project, but to “draft, publicize and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.”

The letter raises an important question for professional communicators, especially as our nation continues to grapple with the gun-control issue: How should a brand prepare for the possibility that a part of its workforce has a political or moral objection to some of its activities?

It’s a tricky balance between ensuring that employees feel comfortable making their opinions known and making sure they understand the limits of those opinions, according to Michael Rubin, a senior vice president with Washington, D.C.-based agency LEVICK.

“It’s important that employees believe that they work for an organization where they can express their views, but it’s just as important they understand that corporate decision-making can’t always be democratic, and sometimes their views can’t be followed,” Rubin says. “This is especially true in public companies, where management has to answer first to shareholders.”

While it may be a tricky middle ground, Rubin says that organizations need to build such an understanding into the corporate culture and the internal communications function. The alternative—allowing employees to dictate what types of work or organizations their company is affiliated with—is a slippery slope, he says.

“Once a company starts managing based on protest letters, where does it end?” he asks.

Google’s work on Project Maven came to light about a month ago. The project involves the use of Wide Area Motion Imagery data captured by drones to find and track vehicles and other objects. When Googlers initially voiced concerns about the project, Diane Greene, the CEO for Google’s cloud business line, assured them the technology wasn’t intended to operate or fly drones, and wouldn’t be used to launch weapons, according to the letter.

“While this eliminates a narrow set of direct applications, the technology is being built for the military, and once it’s delivered it could easily be used to assist in these tasks,” the letter reads. “This plan will irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent.”

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