Bulletins

Outgoing ethical AI researcher describes 'the rot' inside Google

Alex Hanna announced she was leaving Google to join Timnit Gebru's research institute, and charged Google and other tech companies with having a "whiteness problem."

Google logo neon sign

"I am quitting because I’m tired," Alex Hanna wrote in her resignation letter.

Photo: Mitchell Luo/Unsplash

In her resignation letter Wednesday, Google ethical AI researcher Alex Hanna accused the company of having deep "rot" in its internal culture, "maintain[ing] white supremacy behind the veneer of race-neutrality" and being a workplace where those with "little interest in mitigating the worst harms" of its products are promoted at "lightning speed."


"I am quitting because I’m tired," Hanna wrote, announcing that she is joining the research institution recently founded by Timnit Gebru, the prominent AI ethicist who previously co-led Google's ethical AI team. Gebru was fired from the company in 2020 after raising concerns about natural-language processing. Hanna will be accompanied by Dylan Baker, a software engineer who also resigned Wednesday, in joining Gebru's Distributed Artificial Intelligence Research Institute.

"When I joined Google, I was cautiously optimistic about the promise of making the world better with technology. I’m a lot less techno-solutionist now," Baker wrote in a separate letter, in which they wrote about the "cognitive dissonance" of working for a place where full-time employees and contract workers received such different benefits. "I understand in vivid detail how far Google leadership will go to feel like they’re protecting their precious bottom line," Baker wrote.

In her Medium post, Hanna described her own experience working at Google and the tensions that arose from having a job that required finding flaws within Google's products. "I could describe, at length, my own experiences, being in rooms when higher-level managers yelled defensively at my colleagues and me when we pointed out the very direct harm that their products were causing to a marginalized population," Hanna wrote. "I could rehash how Google management promotes, at lightning speed, people who have little interest in mitigating the worst harms of sociotechnical systems, compared to people who put their careers on the line to prevent those harms."

She also cited a town hall meeting where a Google executive noted that there were so few Black women working in the research organization that it would be impossible to share survey results specific to the group without revealing their identities. "These data points are sad," Hanna wrote.

The problem, she argued, stems from a much broader issue in the tech industry: "a whiteness problem," as Hanna put it. She urged researchers and critics to study tech companies as "racialized organization[s]" and encouraged tech employees to "continue to complain" about what they see and experience.

“We appreciate Alex and Dylan’s contributions — our research on responsible AI is incredibly important, and we’re continuing to expand our work in this area in keeping with our AI Principles. We’re also committed to building a company where people of different views, backgrounds and experiences can do their best work and show up for one another,” Google told Protocol in a comment.

Hanna's account echoes much of what Gebru and her co-lead on the ethical AI team, Meg Mitchell, have shared about Google's internal culture. Google previously conducted an internal investigation into Gebru's firing and made some changes to its internal policies in response.

This story was updated with a comment from Google.

Latest Bulletins

On Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill that makes phone calls from California’s prisons free of charge. The new law places the cost of calls not on incarcerated people — or the people receiving calls from them — but on the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

California is the second state after Connecticut and the biggest state by far to institute such a law, which is a direct shot at the $1.4 billion prison telecom industry. For years prison telecom companies have maintained rates that “can be unjustly and unreasonably high, thereby impeding the ability of inmates and their loved ones to maintain vital connections,” the FCC said in 2020.

Prison reform advocates argue the new California law will have a hugely positive impact on the families of incarcerated people in California — and potentially other states that follow California's lead.

Keep Reading Show less

Rohit Chopra arrived as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau one year ago today. True to his reputation as an aggressive watchdog from his time as an FTC commissioner and an earlier stint at the CFPB, he has pursued a busy agenda that’s setting up regulatory battles to come.

Keep Reading Show less
Tech salaries are about to get a lot more transparent. On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a new law to require California employers to post salary ranges in job postings and report hourly pay data by employees’ race and sex to the state. We spoke with four employment lawyers and other pay transparency experts about what this means, and how to comply.
Keep Reading Show less

Microsoft said Friday it's "working on an accelerated timeline" to provide a patch for two newly disclosed vulnerabilities affecting Exchange email servers, which the company acknowledged have been used in attacks on customers.

Keep Reading Show less

Google is stepping up its push for open video formats: The company plans to force hardware manufacturers to support the AV1 video codec if they want to run Android 14 on their mobile devices, according to comments left in recent commits to the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) that were first spotted by Esper senior technical editor Mishaal Rahman.

Keep Reading Show less

A troubling new vulnerability affecting Microsoft Exchange email servers has been disclosed by researchers, though details are still emerging on the severity and exploitability of the flaw.

Keep Reading Show less

The gas-powered vehicle ban dominoes have begun to fall.

Keep Reading Show less

Tech industry groups are once again pleading with the 5th Circuit to block HB 20, Texas' on-again, off-again social media law, which the court recently allowed to take effect.

Keep Reading Show less

Sometimes a major "hack" isn't really a hack at all, such as with some breaches caused by the mishandling of APIs.

Keep Reading Show less

The neobank MoneyLion charged service members excessive fees for loans and often refused to cancel paid memberships, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Keep Reading Show less

Google is shutting down its Stadia cloud gaming service, nearly three years after its launch and roughly 18 months since the company shut down its internal game development division.

Keep Reading Show less

Amazon announced pay raises and the rollout of new benefit programs to warehouse employees Wednesday. But one of those products may pose increased risks to the company’s most precarious workers: the expanded rollout of Amazon’s Anytime Pay Program.

Keep Reading Show less

More pay transparency is coming to California. The Golden State is joining New York City, Colorado, and Washington in requiring employers to disclose pay ranges in job ads.

Keep Reading Show less

Cost-cutting in tech is officially hitting the industry’s titans. After years of ruthless staffing up, both Meta and Google have told some employees to find new jobs within the company or leave, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

Keep Reading Show less

Calendly, the $3 billion scheduling startup that everyone likes to periodically fight about, has made its first acquisition: Prelude, a startup specializing in the hiring process. Prelude is specifically geared toward scheduling job interviews or other types of recruitment-related meetings.

Keep Reading Show less

Celsius Network CEO Alex Mashinsky resigned from the embattled cryptocurrency lender Tuesday morning. The lender is in the middle of bankruptcy proceedings after pausing withdrawals in June.

Keep Reading Show less

Brett Harrison announced on Twitter Tuesday morning that he would be stepping down from his role as president of FTX US and moving to an advisory role. He said he will continue working in the industry.

Keep Reading Show less

Russia set up a sprawling and sophisticated network of websites impersonating mainstream media outlets, which it used to spread anti-Ukrainian messaging that was amplified via fake social media accounts, Meta has found. In a new report published Tuesday, Meta called it Russia’s “largest and most complex” influence operation since the war in Ukraine began.

Keep Reading Show less

Eight states, led by California and New York, have taken legal action against Nexo highlighting growing concerns about companies that offer unregistered crypto lending products.

Keep Reading Show less
It’s a famous startup saying that the next big thing will start out looking like a toy. And there’s no toy that VCs have been more excited about playing around with recently than DALL-E and other generative AI image tools.
Keep Reading Show less

We know there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Still, the idea that many corporate benefits aren’t always a benefit recently touched a nerve on Twitter.

“Been thinking about anti-perks in tech jobs. What perks *sound* good but are a hard no from you?”

The tweet came from Jessica Rose, a developer relations advocate, founder of a meetup series for programmers and aspiring programmers and co-founder of Trans*Code, a hacker org devoted to drawing attention to transgender issues and opportunities.

Rose’s “hard no” was to those so-called benefits that have been around since time immemorial (or at least since the dot-com era). “Don't give me food or hammocks or video games, just let me work remotely or go home on time,” said Rose.

'Don’t touch me'

The tweet thread was full of varied responses, but the paradox of unlimited vacation was the clear favorite. “Wow, people are just so suspicious about unlimited paid time off,” Rose told Protocol when we caught up with her to ask about the tweet.

Other workers balked at in-office massages (“don’t touch me”), free booze, open-plan offices (did anyone in the history of the world ever call this a benefit?), fitness rooms, nap rooms, escape rooms (really any rooms), and something called “blameless retrospectives.” Um, what?

If employees are going to be suspicious of whatever perks you offer, why offer any perks at all?

“So I'm aware of how wonderfully spoiled it is to complain about perks being given out in some kinds of tech workplaces,” said Rose. “I'm the most unimpressed by ‘perks’ which either directly undermine employment rights (like unlimited paid time off can do in some regions) or are intended to throw work/life balance out of kilter in the workplace's favor.”

Unlimited or flexible vacation time can work, but it helps when the culture is one where people are encouraged to take time off and experts agree that mandatory minimums go a long way in helping create that kind of culture.

Your best interests or mine? Why can’t it be both? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

A director of engineering at Google who formerly worked at Microsoft and Zillow called employer-sponsored coaching an anti-perk. “I’ll spring for a coach who is looking out for my best interests, not the company’s, thanks,” she said, adding, “I know I am lucky to be offered this, but it always feels like a trap.”

There’s good reason to be at least a little wary of these programs. Last year Protocol reported that when tech companies work with coaching programs like BetterUp and Bravely the conversations themselves are confidential, but the company often receives aggregated reports on the issues workers are expressing in general, the topics they’re discussing, what's going well for them at work, and what's not.

When Protocol spoke to Twilio’s VP of talent management Andrew Wilhelms about the company's coaching partnership, Wilhelms explained that BetterUp provides a set of Twilio-specific priorities to coaches and Twilio can update those priorities and goals based on what kind of culture change the company needs to see.

This might feel overly controlling, or it might be a great way to help change a company’s culture for the better, especially if a majority of employees are feeling stressed and burned out and are more likely to tell this to a coach than their manager. Twilio told Protocol that 99% of the employees who used the coaching service last year said the sessions were a valuable use of their time, and that 94% said the sessions made them more effective at their job.

“Thoughtful, meaningful perks can benefit both employers and team members, by helping keep their team members happy and hopefully keep them in their role for longer,” Rose said.

Free SunChips < values-based work culture

Research shows that today’s employees don’t want snacks as much as they want work that aligns with their values, and that extends to benefits.

  • “I love work perks that demonstrate an employer's ethics and commitment to meaningfully supporting their team members,” said Rose.
  • These benefits can include big structural benefits like location-agnostic pay and support for different kinds of employee leave, but also smaller things like “sending people a small bonus on their birthday to buy a cake,” Rose added.
  • Rose also looks for “employers who don't subcontract out cleaning or security staff, to make sure that all of their team members get access to the same kinds of pay and support.”

What your 'perks' say about your corporate culture

Some “anti-perks” are just common decency and respect, such as believing your employees are telling the truth when they call in sick. In response to Rose’s prompt, one senior system admin pointed out a job listing that offers an “honor-based sick leave policy” in addition to its “commitment to an open, inclusive and diverse work culture.”

And think twice about listing your game room in your job description, tweeted a product designer from Miro:

“When they advertise a ping-pong table in the job listing, it's a huge 🚩 for me. And I love ping-pong. If a silly perk like this [is] such a relevant part of your benefits package, that says a lot about what the company values, and likely its culture."

A version of this story appeared in Protocol's Workplace newsletter. Sign up here to get it in your inbox three times a week.

Brisk political winds are chilling tech business relations between the U.S. and China, and perhaps more than anything right now, companies with business in China are fretting over one thing the U.S. government could do: change the rules for investments flowing from China into the U.S.
Keep Reading Show less

This year is on track to be a record for global electric vehicle adoption. EVs are expected to make up 13% of light duty vehicle sales, and the world is on track to hit a 2030 milepost en route to net zero by mid-century. Yet the road ahead is far from smooth in other industries.

Keep Reading Show less

The popularity of VAs has grown dramatically over the past couple of years. And we’re not talking about virtual assistant tech; we’re talking about real people.

Keep Reading Show less

Apple called its employees back to the office as the company’s three-day-per-week hybrid schedule finally began in early September. Many tech companies have eased up on requiring office work, making Apple somewhat of an outlier when it comes to RTO.

Another outlier, Google, has been in hybrid mode since April, reportedly leading to outbreaks of COVID-19 at the office. Yet for all the talk about Google’s three-day-a-week RTO policy, two workers who spoke to Protocol anonymously say it’s not much of a mandate. An employee and a contractor both told Protocol that the hybrid policy doesn’t seem to be imposed across the board.

“The impression I have is that it’s basically not enforced,” the employee said. The Google contractor said attendance varied across different teams, noting that while some of their teammates go to the office three days a week, most only go in once. (Neither Google nor Apple returned emails inquiring about how their hybrid policies are enforced.)

Sundar Pichai’s plan to make Google “20% more efficient” may lead nervous workers to choose to go to the office more often. (An August survey found that CBRE tenants were “evenly split” on whether a recession would drive more workers to the office out of anxiety for their job security.)

As of now, most companies’ hybrid requirements are only enforced as a “very soft mandate,” said Brian Kropp, distinguished VP of research at Gartner. About half of companies with a hybrid mandate are tracking office attendance, Kropp said, but even those that are doing so “have no real plans to fire people for not coming to the office, as long as they’re getting their work done.”

More than 40% of HR leaders surveyed by Gartner last month said they weren’t tracking office attendance. Thirty-five percent said they were gathering attendance data from key fob or badge swipes, while 22% said managers were tracking their teams’ attendance. Another 10% said employees were self-reporting their attendance.

Companies that selectively enforce attendance requirements may wind up with unfair outcomes, Kropp said.

“If you have a mandated set of days where you have to come to the office, but it’s unevenly enforced across the company, then you run into issues of fairness,” Kropp said. “That just creates more variability across the company, which then creates more risk as well in terms of that inconsistency.”

And while flexibility puts companies at an advantage when it comes to competing for talent, it also requires more sophisticated management, Kropp said. “The question you should really be asking is: Does our managerial population, on average, have the capability to manage much more flexibility, or not?” Kropp said. “If the answer is ‘yes, they do,’ you should push for as much flexibility as you can.”

To run high-performing teams in a flexible environment, managers need to be “half social worker, half engineer,” Kropp said. That means more empathy and more capacity for planning and organization.

While companies may seem settled into their hybrid ways of working, many leaders are leaving policies open to change with time rather than overcommitting themselves. The world is unpredictable, as we’ve learned in the last 2.5 years. “A lot of these executives — the way that they’re framing it now is, ‘This is our hybrid strategy for now, and it could evolve and could change,’” Kropp said.

Amazon falls into that category. As Andy Jassy put it at the Code Conference on Wednesday, Amazon doesn’t have a plan to force employees back to the office: “We’re going to proceed adaptively as we learn.”

A version of this story appeared in Protocol's Workplace newsletter. Sign up here to get it in your inbox three times a week.

Bulletins