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Tech workers recount the cost of speaking out, as tensions rise inside companies

Frances Haugen; Janneke Parish; Chelsey Glasson
Matt McClain/The Washington Post/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Janneke Parish; Chelsey Glasson
Frances Haugen; Janneke Parish; Chelsey Glasson

Former Apple program manager Janneke Parrish received some unwelcome news last month from her manager on the messaging app Slack.

"I was told that I was under investigation," she said.

Someone had leaked to the press details of a company meeting with Apple CEO Tim Cook and an internal memo warning against leaking. Parrish denies any involvement, but Apple had its suspicions. It confiscated her phone and other devices, she said.

Shortly after, Apple reached a decision.

"I was told that I was being terminated for having deleting apps and files off my devices prior to turning them into the company," Parrish said.

Parrish believes Apple targeted her because she had helped organize #AppleToo, a movement to share anonymous accounts of Apple workers who say they were mistreated for speaking out against harassment and unequal pay. Apple will not comment on the incident, other than saying it thoroughly investigates all company concerns.

Standoffs are intensifying between major tech companies and employees who challenge how those companies wield their power. Late last year, Google fired a prominent Black researcher who questioned the company's treatment of employees of color and women. Around the same time, the National Labor Relations Board said Google illegally fired two employees involved in labor organizing.

Recently, Facebook reportedlylocked down its internal message boards after a former employee leaked damaging company research to the media. Netflix last week fireda transgender employee who had rallied colleagues against a Dave Chappelle special containing jokes at transgender people's expense. The company said the employee had leaked data; the employee denies it.

Tech companies have long prided themselves on encouraging dissent within their ranks. They have positioned themselves as bastions of free expression and debate. But now that more employees are emboldened to speak publicly, the companies are cracking down in attempts to protect their reputations.

Silicon Valley historian Margaret O'Mara believes the pandemic has accelerated tensions. She says tech workers, like employees everywhere, are increasingly questioning the meaning of work in their lives.

"This does feel like a new moment," O'Mara said. "It is reflecting how enormous these companies have become. That is shifting the culture. There are more voices. There are more perspectives. There's less tolerance of just taking these executives at their word."

Whistleblower says speaking out at Google cost her financially and emotionally

Chelsey Glasson, a former Google researcher, said as more tech workers come forward, they should anticipate the ramifications.

Glasson left Google in 2019, after blowing the whistle about what she saw as discrimination against pregnant employees. She is still grappling with the impact of that decision on her career and her personal life.

"Holding a big tech company accountable following misconduct, observed or experienced, is truly a marathon," she said.

Glasson is now suing Google for discrimination. Google would not discuss the case. Apple and Netflix also would not make an official available for an interview.

Glasson gave NPR a preview of a speech she is giving on Thursday to the Alphabet Workers Union, a small group of organized workers at Google.

In it, she says while Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen may have drawn international attention, there are many other tech professionals too fearful to speak out — and sometimes for good reason.

"For every Frances, there are many more workers whose story never breaks through the noise," she plans to tell the union, according to her prepared remarks. "For every person who files a lawsuit, gives testimony to Congress, or writes an open letter, there are countless others suffering in silence afraid of retaliation, fearful of losing their health insurance or immigration status, or worried that speaking up will ruin their careers."

While her fight with Google did not completely ruin her career, she said it exacted a financial toll in mounting legal fees and ostracized her from former colleagues. She said the stress was so bad at one point that she checked herself into an in-patient mental health facility for a month.

"I'm still not the person I once was before all of this, but I am trying to get there," she plans to tell her former colleagues.

Workers who speak out need legal support and better access to mental health resources, she said.

"Being a whistleblower so often wreaks havoc on your mental and physical health," she will tell the union, noting that going public with concerns about a tech company "should not be available to only the privileged few."

Parrish, the former Apple worker, has another view. She hopes the company's actions toward her might galvanize other employees to speak out.

Tech workers, she said, are no longer willing to take a high salary and generous perks in exchange for their loyalty. Now, they want more.

"We want tech to be what it envisions itself to be. We want it to help forge that future," Parrish said. "But the reality is, to forge the future, you have to take care of what's going on inside first."

Editor's note: Facebook, Apple and Netflix are among NPR's recent financial supporters

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.