A Different Angle on Google Employee Privacy

Can we talk about the story of whether Google, a company entrusted with everyone else’s personal secrets, should let its own employees’ confidential data be thrown open to the scrutiny of a vengeful world in the course of trying to show that its workplace is not rife with discrimination?

No, not that Google story. Not the one about the firing of Google Memo author James Damore, which has been taking up oxygen in online conversation all week.  I’ve already had my say in Wednesday’s USA Today on how existing federal law would have helped shape Google’s incentives in handling that furor. (“Now, as then, government pressure on employers to ban speech consists less of direct you-must-ban mandates and more of litigation incentives whose contours are not explicitly announced.”) And since you can read that piece here, I won’t retrace the ground it covers. 

My purpose here instead is to relate another Google bias-claims-and-employee-privacy story from last month, which would have counted as fairly significant news in its own right had it not soon been eclipsed by the memo episode. 

In 2015 the U.S. Department of Labor launched a contract-compliance review of Google’s employment practices related to diversity. This past January, in its last month of office, the Obama DoL followed up with a lawsuit alleging that Google had not been forthcoming enough in providing employee information in response to the review, and asking a court to order it to comply. (As I mentioned in my Wednesday piece, for a company like Google to actually be in litigation over its employment practices “means lawyerly caution would be at a zenith on whether to let its corporate culture be portrayed in a future courtroom as tolerant of sexist argumentation.”)

How forthcoming had Google already been? Per the law firm of Michael Best & Friedrich in the National Law Journal

Up until June 2016, Google had complied with all of OFCCP’s information requests, producing over 1 million data points and approximately 740,000 pages. This production cost Google approximately $500,000 and 2,300 man hours.

In June 2016, OFCCP sent Google two letters requesting a large amount of information and materials. This request came after Google had already provided an incredibly large volume of documents requested during the audit. Google complied with all but three of OFCCP’s requests: (1) a salary history for every person employed by Google during two snapshot periods, going back to each person’s date of hire (which for some extended back to 1998); (2) another snapshot period that included not only the OMB-approved list of information, but also an additional 38 categories for each of the 19,539 people employed by Google on September 1, 2014; and, (3) the name, address, telephone number, and personal email of every employee reflected on either of the two snapshots.

The Labor Department’s suit was heard by one of its own in-house administrative law judges (ALJs), which ruled last month that the demands were “over-broad, intrusive on employee privacy, unduly burdensome, and insufficiently focused on obtaining the requested information.” While allowing some of the requests to go forward in pared-down form, the ALJ drastically cut back their scope and said the agency “OFCCP offered nothing credible or reliable to show that its theory … is based … on anything more than speculation.

Since DoL’s own ALJs have (to understate matters) little reason to lean against the department’s interests, this is a pretty good indication that the requests were indeed overbroad, maybe even an example of the widely suspected federal agency practice of going on subpoena “fishing expeditions” meant to find some rule violation.  

In a statement, Google said it was “concerned that providing personal contact information for more than 25,000 Google employees could have privacy implications, and the judge agreed, citing the history of government data breaches and recent hacking of Department of Labor data.”   

Now if only Google could get its own employees to be as careful about not spilling confidential information about co-workers to parties on the outside.