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How Silicon Valley Makes Employees Toe the Line

A recent article in the Guardian chronicles the uncomfortable travails of an employee at Silicon Valley giant Google. The journal lifts the veil of secrecy to reveal some of the company’s tawdry practices that run counter to what one might think. But Google is not alone in this regard.

The name Silicon Valley conjures all sorts of images. Words like advanced, cutting-edge, and freedom of expression come to mind. But, just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, after reading this article you might think differently about Silicon Valley culture. By the way, don’t expect to hear too much about the diversity problem - especially as it relates to women in Silicon Valley’s top echelons of management.

The reason is that Silicon Valley is part and parcel of a “protect ourselves culture" that “will squash you like a bug” if you don’t toe the line. This seemingly contradicts the image companies like Google and Facebook would like to project - one of internal transparency. It may be fanciful for them to do that.

Behind the façade of openness it likes to project, is a fierce code of secrecy. Nowhere is this better represented than by Facebook’s so-called “rat-catching” team. The digital and physical surveillance and legal threats employed by it to detect and deter intellectual property theft and other criminal activity, while excessive, is understandable. However, these same rules apply to keep employees from going public about conditions on campus relating to workplace conditions, possible sexual misconduct, or even cultural biases. Leakers have faced shaming and firing.

Facebook is not alone in its abrasive actions toward leakers, even as it grants employees relatively unfettered access to company happenings.  At Google employees use internal systems to discuss among themselves a wide range of hot topics- including politics and social issues. But one employee, software engineer James Damore, crossed a line when he disagreed with the company on gender issues in tech land - and he paid the price for his candor. For opining that men may be better suited psychologically to tech work than women, the autistic Damore was fired.

Companies like Facebook and Google try to foster a culture not unlike that of the former Soviet Union (in some people’s estimation) - where you are encouraged to “rat-out” those who may think differently than the corporate culture will tolerate. This milieu encourages a kind of tribalism that surpasses the level of healthy esprit de corps.

In this vein, a former employee is suing Google for its overzealous approach to preventing leaks using restrictive confidentiality agreements and encouraging employees to spy on and report each other. The suit accuses Google’s of violating labor laws that allow employees to discuss workplace conditions, wages, and potential legal violations inside the company. In Damore’s case, his phone and laptop were allegedly toyed with as well as other “weird things.”

Apparently, leaks are increasing and becoming more commonplace since Damore opened the floodgates. Some observers view them as similar to a valve releasing pressure that has been constantly building up. They now encompass a wide range of workplace problem,s from sexism, gender equality, and anger management. One Google employee put it this way:

“People have been dealing with this stuff for years and are finally thinking ‘if Google isn’t going to do something about it, we’re going to leak it’.”

But not all choose to leak - for very good reasons. Some employees walk the company line out of fear of losing out on the extra benefits - the goodies on offer. For some employees and prospective employees, there are no goodies - only draconian measures to keep employees in check. An example of this is a Facebook contract which the Guardian saw that granted the company rights to monitor and record an employee's social media activities, personal Facebook account, as well as emails, phone calls, and internet use. He also had to agree to random searches of his personal belongings - including bags, briefcases, and car while on company premises.

Another example of the repression is found in security personnel trying to entrap employees by leaving USB sticks lying around to “tempt” employees.  As one person put it,

If you find a USB or something you’d have to give it in straight away. If you plugged it into a computer it would throw up a flare and you’d be instantly escorted out of the building.”

Employees got so paranoid that they’d converse in a code they developed - much like inmates in a prison or internment camp. Sometimes, private investigators would fan out into the neighborhood coffee houses and sandwich shops to eavesdrop and hopefully glean some damning tidbits of employee conversations- all with a view to discovering insider trading or to head-off intellectual property theft.

"If we hear anything about a new product coming, or new business ventures or something to do with stocks, we’ll feed that information back to corporate security, said David Davari, a managing director at the Pinkerton security firm.

The upshot is that though these revelations may seem startling, they are all perfectly legal, and the industry makes no apology for them. If you don’t like them, you need not apply for employment - or if presently employed, they will gladly show you the door rather than reveal their secrets to the world.

Written by: Stan Ward

Stan Ward has enjoyed writing for 50 years. Writing has been a comfortable companion to a successful business and teaching career for him. Find him on Google+.

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