Google violated its 'don’t be evil' code when it fired 3 outspoken employees abiding by mandate, suit says

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Google Headquarters in Mountain View, California. Photo from Shutterstock.

A lawsuit filed Monday accuses Google of breaching its contract with three employees by firing them for complying with the company’s “don’t be evil” mandate in its code of conduct.

The employees allege that they were fulfilling their contractual duties when they protested the company’s software trial with the Trump administration’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which was separating families seeking asylum in the United States. Yet Google fired the trio for adhering to the directive, the lawsuit says.

Google also breached an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing when it materially altered a joint contractual commitment to “don’t be evil” by punishing the employees, who called out conduct they thought was inhumane or “evil,” the suit says.

The suit also alleges: The employees relied on the “don’t be evil” commitment to their detriment, Google slandered one of the employees by suggesting that she shared confidential documents with the media, and Google violated California public policy by firing the employees.

Google had said the employees were fired for accessing information outside the scope of their jobs. The employees say, however, they obtained information about the software trial from information available to all Google employees, and they warned others to keep information about the documents internal to Google employees.

Ars Technica, Vice, Bloomberg via the Mercury News and NPR are among the publications with coverage of the suit, filed in California state court in Santa Clara County.

The plaintiffs are Paul Duke, Sophie Waldman and Rebecca Rivers. They were hired in August 2011, January 2018 and February 2019, respectively, to work as software engineers at Google. Their firings are also being investigated by the National Labor Relations Board.

“Don’t be evil” was long a Google motto, according to Vice. The company didn’t mention the motto when it announced that it was renaming renamed itself Alphabet but kept it as part of its conduct code.

Then in May 2018, Google moved “don’t be evil” to the end of its conduct code and removed part of the description. The axed material had said “don’t be evil” is “about providing our users unbiased access to information” and “also about doing the right thing more generally—following the law, acting honorably and treating co-workers with courtesy and respect.”

“The Google Code of Conduct is one of the ways we put ‘don’t be evil’ into practice,” the jettisoned material said. “It’s built around the recognition that everything we do in connection with our work at Google will be, and should be, measured against the highest possible standards of ethical business conduct.”

The current version of the conduct code mentions “don’t be evil” in this single, last sentence: “And remember … don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right—speak up!”

NPR spoke with Laurie Burgess, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, who said courts are capable of interpreting the term “evil.”

“There are all sorts of contract terms that a jury is required to interpret,” she said. “ ‘Don’t be evil’ is not so ‘out there’ as to be unenforceable.”

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