Employees at giant tech companies are figuring out ways to exercise free speech and protest against assignments they find ethically questionable, in spite of at-will laws that could get them fired for such acts of rebellion, according to CNBC. Employees at big names such as Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are staging protests and signing petitions largely in response to government contracts requesting work they find objectionable. Some examples include facial recognition software being used by police, improved military drone technology, and technology used in immigration and customs enforcement.
Nondisclosure agreements and general fear of losing their jobs have kept workers quiet about moral gray areas when it comes to tech work in the past. The First Amendment protects free speech, preventing the government from impeding on rights of U.S. citizens. Those rights, however, do not protect people from their places of business taking action against them. Whistleblower laws offer some safeguards, but only if an employee is reporting illegal activity. They do not protect employees who are taking a stance against legal projects to which they have an ethical objection. Public dissent against the company you work for is not protected and could easily get a person fired.These Silicon Valley employees, however, have taken a few pages out of union playbooks without creating a formal union. By discovering that enough other employees felt the same wariness about projects at hand, they learned they had power in numbers. Protesting en masse would make a big impact in getting their message out to a broader audience. It also tied the hands of executives at the various companies because it would be impossible to fire and replace that many employees, especially with the high-demand, specialized skills necessary to work in this industry. Companies could absolutely enact at-will firing, but at what cost?
Through their organizing efforts, employees at the major tech players have affected some change in the short term, with one company dropping an unpopular contract, and another donating a sizable sum of money to the cause employees were passionate about. Our Los Angeles employment attorneys are more interested in the long-term effects of these recent events. Employees certainly have sent a message loud and clear that management cannot select projects simply based on the bottom line. Generous compensation is not enough to coerce employees to set aside their values, especially when most have skills they could easily shop around to the next tech giant. Further, if a company becomes known for its association with deeply divisive clients and projects, it could be a turn-off to top talent down the road. Even where employees do not have rights explicitly protected by the law, the do have power, and we expect in the current heated political climate they will continue to flex those muscles.
Executives can no longer answer only to the stockholders; they need to recognize the great deal of influence their employees have on the overall success of the company, as well. At the very least, they need to help employees fully understand the scope of projects and not just assume they will say yes to anything that crosses their desks.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.
‘The Business of War’: Google Employees Protest Work for the Pentagon, April 4, 2018, By Scott Shane and Daisuke Wakabayashi, New York Times
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