Tech workers recount the cost of speaking out, as tensions rise inside companies

Oct 21, 2021
Originally published on October 22, 2021 11:09 am

Former Apple program manager Janneke Parrish received some unwelcome news last month from her manager on the messaging app Slack.

"I was told that I was under investigation," she said.

Someone had leaked to the press details of a company meeting with Apple CEO Tim Cook and an internal memo warning against leaking. Parrish denies any involvement, but Apple had its suspicions. It confiscated her phone and other devices, she said.

Shortly after, Apple reached a decision.

"I was told that I was being terminated for having deleting apps and files off my devices prior to turning them into the company," Parrish said.

Parrish believes Apple targeted her because she had helped organize #AppleToo, a movement to share anonymous accounts of Apple workers who say they were mistreated for speaking out against harassment and unequal pay. Apple will not comment on the incident, other than saying it thoroughly investigates all company concerns.

Standoffs are intensifying between major tech companies and employees who challenge how those companies wield their power. Late last year, Google fired a prominent Black researcher who questioned the company's treatment of employees of color and women. Around the same time, the National Labor Relations Board said Google illegally fired two employees involved in labor organizing.

Recently, Facebook reportedly locked down its internal message boards after a former employee leaked damaging company research to the media. Netflix last week fired a transgender employee who had rallied colleagues against a Dave Chappelle special containing jokes at transgender people's expense. The company said the employee had leaked data; the employee denies it.

Tech companies have long prided themselves on encouraging dissent within their ranks. They have positioned themselves as bastions of free expression and debate. But now that more employees are emboldened to speak publicly, the companies are cracking down in attempts to protect their reputations.

Silicon Valley historian Margaret O'Mara believes the pandemic has accelerated tensions. She says tech workers, like employees everywhere, are increasingly questioning the meaning of work in their lives.

"This does feel like a new moment," O'Mara said. "It is reflecting how enormous these companies have become. That is shifting the culture. There are more voices. There are more perspectives. There's less tolerance of just taking these executives at their word."

Whistleblower says speaking out at Google cost her financially and emotionally

Chelsey Glasson, a former Google researcher, said as more tech workers come forward, they should anticipate the ramifications.

Glasson left Google in 2019, after blowing the whistle about what she saw as discrimination against pregnant employees. She is still grappling with the impact of that decision on her career and her personal life.

"Holding a big tech company accountable following misconduct, observed or experienced, is truly a marathon," she said.

Glasson is now suing Google for discrimination. Google would not discuss the case. Apple and Netflix also would not make an official available for an interview.

Glasson gave NPR a preview of a speech she is giving on Thursday to the Alphabet Workers Union, a small group of organized workers at Google.

In it, she says while Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen may have drawn international attention, there are many other tech professionals too fearful to speak out — and sometimes for good reason.

"For every Frances, there are many more workers whose story never breaks through the noise," she plans to tell the union, according to her prepared remarks. "For every person who files a lawsuit, gives testimony to Congress, or writes an open letter, there are countless others suffering in silence afraid of retaliation, fearful of losing their health insurance or immigration status, or worried that speaking up will ruin their careers."

While her fight with Google did not completely ruin her career, she said it exacted a financial toll in mounting legal fees and ostracized her from former colleagues. She said the stress was so bad at one point that she checked herself into an in-patient mental health facility for a month.

"I'm still not the person I once was before all of this, but I am trying to get there," she plans to tell her former colleagues.

Workers who speak out need legal support and better access to mental health resources, she said.

"Being a whistleblower so often wreaks havoc on your mental and physical health," she will tell the union, noting that going public with concerns about a tech company "should not be available to only the privileged few."

Parrish, the former Apple worker, has another view. She hopes the company's actions toward her might galvanize other employees to speak out.

Tech workers, she said, are no longer willing to take a high salary and generous perks in exchange for their loyalty. Now, they want more.

"We want tech to be what it envisions itself to be. We want it to help forge that future," Parrish said. "But the reality is, to forge the future, you have to take care of what's going on inside first."

Editor's note: Facebook, Apple and Netflix are among NPR's recent financial supporters

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The tech industry is bringing down the hammer on its outspoken workers. Facebook has locked down internal message boards. Apple recently fired a worker who became a labor activist. Netflix terminated an employee accused of leaking documents.

NPR's Bobby Allyn looks at the human cost of speaking out in the tech industry.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Former Apple employee Janneke Parrish got a message on Slack last month from her manager.

JANNEKE PARRISH: I was told that I was under investigation. My devices were confiscated at that point.

ALLYN: There was a leak. Someone shared with the press a company meeting with CEO Tim Cook and an internal memo. Parrish says it wasn't her, but Apple had its suspicions, then acted.

PARRISH: I was told that I was being terminated for having deleted apps and files off my devices prior to turning them into the company.

ALLYN: Parrish says she was targeted because of her activism. She helped organize #AppleToo, a nod to the #MeToo movement. It was a push to share anonymous accounts of Apple workers who say they were mistreated for things like alleged harassment and unequal pay. Parrish says the organizing came after numerous attempts to raise these concerns with her bosses at Apple.

PARRISH: I absolutely believe that my #AppleToo involvement is at the heart of my termination.

ALLYN: Apple wouldn't comment on the incident, saying they thoroughly investigate all company concerns. Across the tech industry, standoffs are intensifying. After a Facebook whistleblower shared thousands of internal documents with regulators in the press, the company reportedly began locking down its internal message boards and trying to identify other leakers.

Netflix fired a trans employee whom the company said leaked confidential records. The ex-employee says that's false. But somehow, the public did learn how much Netflix paid to produce a Dave Chappelle special after some of his jokes offended transgender people. Netflix employees yesterday staged a walkout, chanting trans lives matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Trans lives matter.

ALLYN: Chelsey Glasson is a former Google employee who left the company after blowing the whistle about what she saw as discrimination against pregnant employees. That was in 2019. And still, it's affecting her personal life and career.

CHELSEY GLASSON: That holding a big tech company accountable following misconduct, observed or experienced, is truly a marathon.

ALLYN: Glasson gave NPR a preview of a speech she's giving today to a small union at Google. Her message - speaking out in big tech comes with a cost - financial, mental and social.

GLASSON: So to suddenly be alienated and to not have people reach out, or to people - to have people not respond to my emails and my correspondence, that's really hard.

ALLYN: Glasson is now suing Google for discrimination. Google wouldn't discuss the case.

These companies have long prided themselves for encouraging dissenters within their ranks. But now, more of those dissenters are emboldened to speak publicly, and that's put the companies on the defense. Silicon Valley historian Margaret O'Mara says tech workers, like employees everywhere, are using the pandemic to question the meaning of work in their lives.

MARGARET O'MARA: But also, it's reflecting how enormous these companies have become. That is shifting the culture. There are more voices. There are more perspectives. There's less tolerance of just taking the executives at their word.

ALLYN: Apple, Google and Netflix, all recent NPR financial supporters, wouldn't make any of their officials available for an interview. Former Apple worker Parrish says tech workers are no longer willing to take a high salary and generous perks in exchange for their loyalty. Now they want more.

PARRISH: We want tech to be what it envisions itself to be. We want it to help forge that future. But the reality is that to forge the future, you have to take care of what's going on inside first.

ALLYN: And what's happening on the inside is increasingly becoming an outside problem.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.