At 19, Kathryn Spiers was hired on as one of the youngest Google platform security engineers in the company. Less than two years later, she’s been abruptly terminated for what she believes is her involvement in internal activism.
Google’s firing of Spiers is the latest in a string of employee terminations apparently based on their attempts to organise—an escalation that portends a fierce ongoing conflict between workers and management within one of the world’s most influential corporations.
As in the case of her four colleagues who were similarly fired with little specific justification the week of Thanksgiving, Spiers does not believe she violated internal Google policies. Over the course of three investigative interviews and a meeting announcing her termination, Spiers took contemporaneous notes, which she shared with Gizmodo.
According to her notes, Spiers was informed of having violated the Google code of conduct, the networking policy, and the security policy. However, at the meeting, which allegedly included Stephen C. King, the company’s director of global investigations, Google representatives declined to explain how her actions had violated those policies, Spiers says.
Like the “Thanksgiving Four” fired before her, Spiers has filed an unfair labour practices charge with the U.S. National Labour Relations Board (NLRB), with assistance from the Communication Workers of America. The charge claims that these interrogations and her eventual firing were “done to attempt to quell Spiers and other employees from asserting their right to engage in concerted protected activities.”
Perhaps as a sign of escalating tactics on Google’s side, several of these investigative meetings, according to Spiers’s notes, involved Elizabeth Karnes, a Google staff attorney. Worryingly, Spiers claims in a Medium post she was denied her own legal representation during these proceedings. Laurence Berland, one of the Thanksgiving Four, told Gizmodo his own set of lengthy interviews did not involve being questioned by members of the company’s legal team, and it’s unclear if this is standard practice.
In her Medium post, Spiers describes herself as an exemplary employee who consistently received high marks in her performance reviews and recently received a promotion. “I was very good at my job and Google has acknowledged this,” she writes.
So what did Spiers do to draw so much heat from Google’s hall monitors? Speaking to Gizmodo, she described pushing a bit of code that would generate a small popup in the Chrome web browser on company machines. “Googlers have the right to participate in protected concerted activities,” the popup read, when an employee accessed either the corporate policy document or the website of IRI, an infamous union-busting firm, the services of which Google recently retained.
WE WILL NOT reprimand, discipline, or issue a final written warning to you because you exercise your right to bring to us, on behalf of yourself and other employees, issues and complaints regarding your wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.
Spiers was also involved in writing some of the code behind the Always Ask Kent tool first reported by Bloomberg last week. Seemingly in protest of new restrictions around data access, the tool, once installed, would send an email to Kent Walker—the company’s chief legal officer—whenever any document was opened for any reason.
In both cases, Spiers told Gizmodo, she received the appropriate approvals—though as an “owner” of the corporate policy notifier popup, she needed none—and reviews before pushing the code. Within three hours of the code going live, Spiers said, she’d been put on administrative leave, and which point she could no longer view corporate documents, such as the internal policies that might be pivotal to investigative interviews—a frustrating irony encountered by Berland and others.
“What I did is entirely consistent with Google’s mission of organising the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful. I changed code as part of my job, which was part of a long track record of excellent work that I did for the company,” Spiers writes (emphasis hers). “Google is resorting to firing those of us who organise and assert our collective voice because it is afraid.”
We’ve reached out to Google to learn if other employees involved in either creating Always Ask Kent or in the approvals process of the policy notifier update have been similarly disciplined.
What seems abundantly clear is that Alphabet, now fully under the reign of Sundar Pichai, is attempting to steer against a company culture that has rapidly become one of the most outspoken among the tech giants, and doing so in ways the NLRB way well deem illegal. Given the appetite for mass activism and capabilities of engineers at Google who might chafe at management’s heavy-handedness and blunt disregard for their colleagues, a polite popup may soon be the least of the company’s worries.