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Posted on Apr 20, 2018

A Values Challenge At Google

A Values Challenge At Google

How would you respond if your company had the opportunity to win a $10 Billion contract? Would it matter if this deal was with the U.S. Department of Defense?

This is the situation facing employees at a few large tech companies, including Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Oracle. The Defense Department is offering a multi-year cloud storage contract to one lucky winner, worth billions of dollars.

However, at Google there are quite a few employees who have already openly protested any involvement in this project. More than 3,000 Googlers (as they refer to themselves) signed a letter addressed to CEO Sundar Pichai expressing their concerns.

These employees clearly state, “We believe that Google should not be in the business of war.”

They also reference Google’s famous core value, “Don’t be evil.” Interestingly, when I look back at how this value was defined in 2009 (when I first researched Google’s values), there were three important attributes:

  • Honesty and integrity in all we do
  • Our business practices are beyond reproach
  • We make money by doing good things

Today, a large number of Google employees feel this billion dollar defense contract violates their values. In the letter to the CEO, it further states:

“We cannot outsource the moral responsibility of our technologies to third parties. Google’s stated values make this clear: Every one of our users is trusting us. Never jeopardize that. Ever. This contract puts Google’s reputation at risk and stands in direct opposition to our core values.”

Personally, I applaud these employees for raising their hands to protect the company’s stated values. Over the past number of years, I feel there has been a shift in leadership thinking at the company that has caused it to deviate from it’s original set of values.

A Look at Google’s Past

Looking back, it’s unfathomable how Google has transformed from being a garage startup in 1998 to a huge moneymaking machine and household name it is today. While founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were two very smart entrepreneurs, I credit their wise move of recruiting Eric Schmidt in 2001 to lead the company forward as CEO. It was under Schmidt’s strong and steady stewardship that Google became the global powerhouse it’s known as today.

Then in 2011, Schmidt stepped back from the CEO role, becoming Executive Chairman and acting as an advisor, while the two original founders, Page and Brin, took over the leadership of Google. Then in 2015 Sundar Pichai, who had been product chief at Google, assumed the helm as CEO. It was at this point that Page and Brin shifted their focus away from Google to other (more exciting) initiatives under the new parent company, Alphabet.

Now, did you catch the trend?

  • The founders (Page and Brin) got the company started for the first 3 years.
  • An experienced CEO (Schmidt) led the company through massive growth for 10 years
  • The founders re-assumed leadership control for 4 years.
  • The head of product development (Pichai) has been CEO for a few years now.

Along the way, what happened to the original values?

Here’s another trend I’ve noticed among many large companies. There’s a shift to no longer listing values on a company’s website to instead highlighting what the company is doing to give back and/or be viewed as a good corporate citizen.

Google, for example, used to have ten well-defined values posted on their website (way more than 3 that I my recommend). They were listed under the title “Our Philosophy” as Ten things Google has found to be true. These values were evident in 2009 when I first started my research and still there in 2013 when I researched the values of all Fortune 500 companies.

But today when you visit Google’s website and click on “Our Values” there is no reference to any of these original values. Instead, the page URL indicates Our Commitments and provides a summary of 12 examples that highlight three key areas: Opportunity to Learn; Opportunity to succeed; and Opportunity to be heard.” I’m not sure if these are Google’s new replacement values, or an attempt by Google’s leaders to explain the good they are committed to contributing to the world.

Returning to the open letter that Google employees sent to their CEO, it sounds like the employees still believe the original values are in force. But are they?

Democracy vs. Constitution

Something is wrong when employees feel the need to express a concern in a democratic manner – like a group of high school students collecting signatures to ask politicians to invoke greater gun control.

Employees don’t “vote” their leaders into power. They choose to work for a company for a variety of reasons, including getting a regular paycheck.

But when leaders make decisions that violate known values (stated or implied) trust is broken. This in turn leads to a whole lot of problems (which I won’t get into here).

From my perspective, this current challenge at Google has nothing to do with government contracts, ethics, or how many employees support a particular project. Instead, it has everything to do with the clarity of values and whether or not the leaders respect them.

This is not democracy. It’s about a company’s constitution.

Just like the American people rely on the U.S. Constitution to guide the formation of laws and decision-making, values are the “constitution” for any business. All stakeholders, from employees to customers to investors, and from suppliers to even the community at large, rely on a company’s values (constitution) to be the guide for leaders in their decision-making.

Let’s hope the current CEO at Google, and his leadership team, listen to their employees. And more importantly, let’s hope the leaders of Google get back to having a set of values (and ideally fewer than 10) that can be viewed like a constitution. There are a lot of people relying on them, not only inside but also outside the company!