For Big Tech whistleblowers, there’s no such thing as 'moving on'

For Big Tech whistleblowers, there’s no such thing as 'moving on'

"People have often reported on whistleblowing matter-of-factly as though we did it and moved on with our lives." But that couldn't be further from the truth.

Aerica Shimizu Banks

Photo: Les Talusan

Last summer, just before she published a viral Twitter thread about the discrimination she said she faced at Pinterest, Aerica Shimizu Banks crunched some numbers to see how long she could afford to be persona non grata in the tech industry.

She had some stock and savings stored away, thanks to her nearly six-year stint at Google. But she'd also been spending money on legal fees in her negotiations with Pinterest and, "like many daughters of immigrants," Banks said, she'd been simultaneously supporting her mother in Japan for a little over two years. Before she clicked "tweet" that day last June, alleging discrimination and retaliation at Pinterest, Banks did the math to see how long she could keep herself and her mother afloat.

"I planned for myself that if I become a pariah in the tech industry and no one will hire me, I can hold out for a year," Banks said.

Ifeoma Ozoma was making similar calculations. She joined Banks in coming forward with her own allegations of pay discrimination at Pinterest that day. Like Banks, she had been helping a family member — her sister who'd been laid off at the start of the pandemic — and was now paying her own health insurance to the tune of nearly $900 a month. Could she really afford to tell her story and run the risk of being blacklisted? Ozoma said she asked herself that question "every single day."

"My concern was: How many months do I have to both keep my insurance and pay for my house?" Ozoma said.

As whistleblowers go, Ozoma and Banks both describe themselves as "privileged." As women of color working in tech, they faced no shortage of challenges breaking into the predominantly white, male industry. But thanks to their elite educational backgrounds, their dense networks and the nest eggs they built working in a lucrative field, they were also in a far less precarious position than so many other workers who lack a similar safety net. "There are so many people where it wouldn't be an option to stay in their homes," Ozoma said.

But that doesn't mean the fallout has been easy for Ozoma, Banks or the growing number of tech employees who have spoken out about injustices they say they've experienced and witnessed while working for tech giants.

If I become a pariah in the tech industry and no one will hire me, I can hold out for a year.

At a time of unprecedented worker activism in tech and increased scrutiny on the industry, tech whistleblowers' stories have recently been met with public praise and admiration from fellow tech workers and tech critics who want to see powerful tech companies held accountable for their actions. But that early outpouring of support can mask a litany of costs tech whistleblowers bear: the struggles with anxiety, the unending legal battles, the nine-hour depositions, the online trolls and the interviews with journalists (myself included) that can often resurface traumatic memories. There are literal costs, too: the dwindling savings accounts, the loss of health insurance, the risk of being sued for violating an NDA. Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang tweeted this week that she turned down a $64,000 severance payment just so she would be free to talk about her time at Facebook, during which she said the company failed to act on rampant platform manipulation by foreign leaders in developing nations.

For some, coming forward means walking away not just from a job, but from the industry altogether, sometimes at the height of a coveted career. Those who do move on to new companies remain forever fearful that their bosses and colleagues will find out about their pasts, and the cycle of retaliation will begin again.

"It's always in the back of my mind," said Chelsey Glasson, a former Google employee who is suing the company for pregnancy discrimination and has written publicly about her experiences. Glasson left Google to work for Facebook and now works at the real estate startup Compass. Whenever she gets a new job, she said, "I wonder: Are they Googling my name? I know there's a background check. Is the fact that I'm in litigation going to come up?"

"People have often reported on whistleblowing matter-of-factly," Ozoma said, "as though we did it and moved on with our lives." That, she said, couldn't be further from the truth.

'I needed a lot of time to heal'

In her Twitter thread, Banks described her time at Pinterest as "a period of glaringly unfair pay, intense discrimination, and terrifying retaliation," during which she received "disparaging comments" about her ethnicity and was "berated" for opposing the company's plans to cut contractor pay during the 2019 holiday season.

But much to her surprise, Banks didn't become a pariah as she feared. Neither did Ozoma.

Instead, the two women were flooded with job offers from other tech companies and former employers who wanted them back. "I have been blown away by the support," Banks said.

For Ozoma and Banks, jumping into another job right away, while they were still dealing with the scars of their last one, didn't feel like a viable option either. The year at Pinterest had wreaked havoc on Banks's mental health, she said, and prompted her to begin taking antidepressants for the first time. "What I found, that I didn't anticipate, was that I needed a lot of time to heal," Banks said. "I had to come face-to-face with how traumatic that past year had been."

"I had been living in hell since September of 2018," said Ozoma, who first raised her concerns about pay discrimination at Pinterest around that time. "I needed an actual break."

Former Pinterest employee Ifeoma Ozoma is working on developing resources for tech whistleblowers. Photo: Adria Malcolm

Not that she got one. Those first few weeks after going public, Ozoma estimates she was scheduling three to five interviews with journalists a day. "It's reliving it in every single conversation you have," she said. "The stress of everything has been a lot."

Asked for comment, Pinterest's global head of communications, LeMia Jenkins, pointed to a number of changes the company has made in the last year, including increasing transparency about employee pay, improving representation in its workforce and, as of this week, doing away with NDAs that prohibit employees from talking about their experiences. Both Ozoma and Banks signed such NDAs when they left Pinterest. "We're committed to building a company that's diverse, equitable and inclusive, where employees feel included and supported," Jenkins said.

Tech whistleblowers often describe the severe emotional toll that standing up to gigantic companies and straining once-close work relationships can take. In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Emi Nietfeld, a former Google engineer who said she was harassed by a technical lead inside the company, described being "constantly on edge."

"I went weeks without sleeping through the night," Nietfeld wrote. Several Google employees have alleged that the company at times capitalized on this by pushing them into mental health leave after they came forward with allegations of racism and sexism at work, rather than dealing with the allegations head-on.

In a statement, a Google spokesperson said the Google-funded resources the company provides to people who have made misconduct allegations are "in no way a substitute to Google investigating and addressing the matter they have reported."

"If someone raises a complaint, our first priority is to investigate their concerns and we take firm action when we find policy violations," the spokesperson said.

'I had to keep my voice'

Google AI ethicist Timnit Gebru was also overwhelmed by the outpouring of support she received when she was fired from Google after refusing to withdraw a research paper on the ethical dilemmas posed by large language models. Banks and Ozoma, two strangers to her at the time, became particularly vocal allies.

"Ifeoma was checking on me everyday. She was like, 'Make sure to drink some water,'" Gebru said. "Aerica worked on galvanizing people calling Congress ... I'd never even spoken to her on the phone when she did that."

But even as praise for Gebru and her colleague Margaret Mitchell, who was also fired, grew online, so did a targeted harassment campaign against Gebru. Shortly after coming forward in December, Gebru was hit by what she calls a "barrage" of trolls, some of whom she said would just "constantly call me the N-word." But what made her fear most for her safety weren't the slurs, but the trolls who seemed determined to follow her around the internet. "There were people who seemed extremely fixated, who would show up at my talks, who would literally stalk me online," Gebru said. "I didn't know: Would they find my house?"

During this time, Gebru said she was "constantly on Twitter." Walking away might have shielded her from the harassment, but that hardly felt like a fair option. "I had to keep up my voice," she said. "If I didn't keep up my voice, you'd only hear Google's side of the story." (Google Senior Vice President Jeff Dean had tweeted out a letter he sent to the Google Research Team, alleging Gebru's paper "didn't meet our bar for publication.")

Timnit Gebru's firing has resulted in backlash against Jeff Dean. Photo: Kimberly White/Getty Images

Like Ozoma and Banks, the experience of coming forward and withstanding a sustained onslaught of harassment has exhausted Gebru. Since December, she too has been relying on savings and health insurance she receives through a family member. She said she doesn't plan on diving back into work full-time until at least July. "I want to get to a point where this chapter is a little more behind me," Gebru said. "I'm tired."

For now, at least, the trolling has died down somewhat, but Gebru lives with the knowledge and the fear that it could start back up at any time.

'Work inside the system or just give it the middle finger?'

While the emotional burden of coming forward can be heavy, it's not the only reason whistleblowers avoid taking other companies up on their immediate job offers. Ozoma's experience at Pinterest and Gebru's experience at Google also made them deeply skeptical that any other large company would be much different. "Every corporate structure is shit to one extent or another," Ozoma said. "I'm not coming from one situation that's shit into another."

"Institutions have so many different barriers," Gebru said. "You end up spending all of your time fighting them and not doing your work."

The experience was similar for Jack Poulson, who publicly resigned from Google in 2018 after The Intercept reported that the company was working on a censored search engine for China under the codename Project Dragonfly. Like Ozoma, Banks and Gebru, he had money saved up from his time at Google. Unlike them, he also had health insurance thanks to a recent move to Canada. And he too was flooded with job offers from, he said, "every major tech company," when his story first came out.

But Poulson had emerged from Google with a newfound sense of mistrust in the industry — and a newfound sense of responsibility as one of the few Googlers to speak out publicly against Dragonfly. He didn't want to squander it. "There's a spotlight you get that's temporary," Poulson said of the surge in attention. "People try to trade on your moral halo."

Poulson had planned on taking a pay cut by working part-time as a consultant for startups. But he soon learned that not only were lots of young companies angling to be acquired by his former employer, but ethical quandaries similar to the ones he faced at Google cropped up in unexpected places. In 2019, while pursuing a contract with FEMA, Poulson attended a meeting of the Department of Homeland Security's office of science and technology, where he said an official warned him that the technology he was building for FEMA might wind up being used for border surveillance. "Here I am trying to build humanitarian technology, and you're telling me you're going to use that to surveil immigrants, and that's just something I have to expect?" Poulson recalled.

People try to trade on your moral halo.

Asked for comment about Poulson's account, a DHS spokesperson told Protocol, "DHS seeks to develop technologies that can support many aspects of our vast homeland security mission. As good stewards of American taxpayers' dollars, this approach maximizes the impact of investments in science and technology development."

Searching for a nonprofit that wasn't backed by tech billionaires proved equally challenging. "You get into questions of do you want to work for Silicon Valley billionaires, but under the name of a nonprofit?" Poulson said. "To what degree do you want to work inside the system or just give it the middle finger?"

Poulson chose the latter, and now spends his time building Tech Inquiry, a volunteer-led effort to unearth ties between tech companies and government agencies. For now, he's living mostly on savings he considers himself lucky to have and applying selectively to jobs. "I'm OK with burning some of my money in order to not have to roll back and plead fealty to some of the billionaires," he said.

But over time, he's also found that being picky about diving into a new job can sometimes send the wrong signal to would-be employers. "People judge you by your most recent level of prestige," he said. "There's an assumption if you're not somewhere prestigious, it's because you couldn't be, not because you chose not to be."

'We are risking our jobs'

Flipping the bird to the entire industry, of course, isn't an option for everyone. When Chelsey Glasson left Google due to alleged pregnancy discrimination, she was on maternity leave with her second child. As the primary breadwinner in her family, Glasson said she knew she would need another job before she could tell anyone her story. It wasn't until after she found a new position at Facebook that she published a now-viral internal memo titled, "I'm Not Returning to Google After Maternity Leave, and Here is Why." In it, Glasson wrote that she had reported her manager to HR for allegedly discriminating against another pregnant employee, only to face what she described as retaliation and subsequent pregnancy discrimination herself.

"If I got fired and didn't have a backup plan, we'd be in a lot of trouble financially and with a baby and toddler at home," Glasson said. "I needed to make sure that I had a job lined up and there was security before I spoke out."

A few months later, Glasson shared her name publicly for the first time in an interview with Fast Company, equally convinced that it was a story the world needed to hear and scared about how her new colleagues at Facebook might receive the news. "You have to worry about bias that might emerge from your story being so public and visible, and that lingers today," Glasson said, adding that her leadership at Facebook "was supportive."

Google declined to comment on Glasson's suit, citing pending litigation, but a company spokesperson said, "All instances of inappropriate conduct reported to us are investigated rigorously, and we have simplified how employees can raise concerns and provided more transparency into the investigations process at Google."

Chelsey Glasson is suing Google for pregnancy discrimination. Photo: Chelsey Glasson

If the risks of losing a job in tech were high for Glasson, a college-educated user researcher with experience at Google, Facebook and Salesforce, they're even higher for the legions of contractors, gig workers and fulfillment employees who are not only subjected to some of the most traumatic work environments in the tech industry, but have never had access to the six-figure salaries, stock options and benefits packages that full-time employees working in corporate headquarters get.

After Facebook content moderators in Ireland were required to return to the office, despite skyrocketing COVID-19 cases in the country, two moderators decided to come forward and publicly object to their working conditions in the press and in a meeting with the country's deputy prime minister. "We are risking our jobs," Ibrahim Halawa, one of the moderators, said on a call with reporters. "We don't know what's going to happen to us once we go back to work."

This disparity in risk is one reason why Ozoma is loath to frame herself as a model for other whistleblowers. "I don't think my experience should be seen as representative," she said, noting that she has a degree from Yale, media training and an extensive professional network from her time working at Facebook, Google and Pinterest. "I think it would be crazy for me not to recognize and acknowledge that privilege."

'The only choice I had'

Since coming forward, Ozoma said she's fielded constant inquiries from tech workers asking her how to do what she did. Her advice? Don't, if you can avoid it. "If there's any way you can do this without having to become a public figure because of the harm you experienced, I would go that route," Ozoma said. "This would not be my first, second, third or fourth choice. It was just the only choice I had."

Poulson offers similar advice to would-be whistleblowers. "I frankly recommend people to share information anonymously with reporters, more so than put their name on it," Poulson said. "It doesn't destabilize you."

Not that either one of them regrets their decisions. Both of them understand the crucial role that whistleblowers play in the workplace and the fact that attaching a face and name to a cause can sometimes prompt more widespread worker activism. After Ozoma and Banks came out with their allegations, Pinterest's former Chief Operating Officer Francoise Brougher published her own account of gender discrimination at the company, which eventually led to a $22.5 million settlement. ("We resolved our claims, but definitely not to that amount," Banks said of her negotiations.) The women's stories also prompted Pinterest employees to stage a virtual walkout last August to protest race and gender inequality at the company.

This would not be my first, second, third or fourth choice. It was just the only choice I had.

"Pinterest would have never seen any sort of walkout organizing if not for me and Aerica and Francoise speaking up," Ozoma said. "You needed multiple whistleblowers before employees felt empowered enough to organize."

Now, Ozoma is spending her time working on building a safety net for future whistleblowers. Through a partnership with the Omidyar Network, she's creating a series of guides for whistleblowers that will offer advice on working with lawyers and working with the media, among other things. She plans to call it the Tech Worker Handbook, a play on the ubiquitous employee handbooks that tech companies distribute to their workers, outlining "all about the shit you shouldn't do or they will fire you," Ozoma said.

She wants to create a set of resources for workers outlining their rights and how to execute them. Those resources will include tech whistleblowers' stories, told in their own words, and may someday also include funding directly for whistleblowers who need financial assistance for healthcare and other expenses. That project is modeled on a similar fund designed by, a nonprofit focused on labor organizing.

Ozoma and Banks have also thrown their full support behind the Silenced No More Act in California, which would expand an existing state law that allows people to break their non-disclosure agreements in instances of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. The new law would broaden that protection to all forms of illegal misconduct. "When you're forced to sign an NDA, most people consider that a blanket silencing mechanism," Banks said. Deciding whether she could afford to break her own NDA with Pinterest and run the risk of legal action was very much part of her calculations last summer. "Expanding that protection means you don't have to go through the lengths we did to take that calculated risk," Banks said.

Ozoma, who is a co-sponsor on the bill, wrote about her support for the legislation and her own NDA at Pinterest in an op-ed on Tuesday. Hours later, Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann emailed the staff to express his support for the bill and to announce that the company is adopting the policies behind the law, whether it goes forward or not.

"This is the kind of change Ifeoma and I hoped to make when we came forward," Banks said, though she questioned how the company will implement these changes in practice. "Will the culture of harassment and retaliation for speaking out against discrimination at the company change with it?" Banks asked.

Pinterest later specified it will not release former employees from their NDAs.

Poulson, meanwhile, is collaborating with a nonprofit called Open MIC, which focuses on tech and media accountability through shareholder engagement. Open MIC recently worked with Trillium Asset Management to send a shareholder proposal to Alphabet, which calls on the board to oversee a third-party review of its whistleblower policies.

'A chicken and egg thing'

While no two whistleblowers' stories are exactly alike, one common thread that ties many of them together is the fact that coming forward often sets them on a new career path focused on advocacy. Following her landmark gender discrimination case against the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins and a stint as CEO of Reddit, investor Ellen Pao wound up becoming CEO of a nonprofit called Project Include, focused on diversity and inclusion in the tech industry. After blowing the whistle on Theranos, Erika Cheung, a molecular biologist by training, co-founded a group called Ethics in Entrepreneurship, focused on helping founders with ethical decision-making.

The path has been similar for the whistleblowers who spoke with Protocol. With Tech Inquiry, Poulson's applying his technical skills to tee up journalists with the leads they need to investigate tech's government contracts. Ozoma, who said she always thought she'd work in tech until she retired, is now running Earthseed, a consulting firm that works on issues of tech accountability.

Jack Poulson resigned from Google in 2018.Photo: Jack Poulson

Banks also launched a consulting firm called Shiso, which focuses on racial justice and inclusion. "I was sort of shoved into fulfilling my calling by this really unfortunate, terrible event, but sometimes that's what it takes," Banks said.

Ozoma argues it's not a coincidence that whistleblowers often wind up forging their own path outside the confines of Silicon Valley's secretive, structured cultures. "Isn't it sort of a chicken and egg thing? Aren't we also the ones who were most likely to speak up because we were the most prone to go off and do our own thing? I don't think you can actually separate that. I was always going to be most likely to speak up," she said, "which is why I got so much shit."

Following that path does come with its sacrifices. Banks, Ozoma and Poulson all said they've taken significant hits to their incomes since leaving their companies. "Nothing is constant," Ozoma said. "I don't get a paycheck every two weeks. I get a paycheck sometimes a month after I send an invoice." Ozoma said she's still worried about what will happen in September when her COBRA health insurance expires.

It's so often the people who have been on the receiving end of misconduct that end up being tasked to influence change.

Even Glasson, who has stayed in the industry, said her role as a whistleblower has become something of a part-time job. "I have this new visibility. I can't not speak out about these issues," Glasson said. She described this shift as both a blessing and a burden. "That's a part-time job I already don't have time for, working full-time with two young kids [and] being the primary income earner," she said. "It's so often the people who have been on the receiving end of misconduct that end up being tasked to influence change."

For all that whistleblowers give up and take on, none of the people who spoke to Protocol were resentful about losing plum careers at prestigious institutions. "The fact I was at Google was not what was important to me. It was my research that was important," Gebru said, noting that she's now helping with a proposal for a new research institution.

What does make her mad, and what prompts her to continue speaking out, however, is the fact that tech jobs are often good jobs, at least in terms of the financial security and benefits they provide. Particularly for people from underrepresented groups, landing a job in tech can be a hard-fought battle all on its own. Gebru doesn't want to see people lose those opportunities because of another person or corporation's misconduct. "You earn so much money when you're at these companies, and I want to make sure that people from marginalized communities can still go and earn this money and retire and do other stuff they want to," Gebru said. "Why is it that potential is always taken away?"

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