Employee backlash can be very powerful.
There’s no better illustration of the power of the tech worker than Google’s decision not to renew its controversial contract with the U.S. Defense Department.
Project Maven is an effort to improve the Pentagon’s artificial intelligence capabilities, and Google has been involved in it, working on giving drones the ability to better identify targets. After the contract was made public in March, more than 4,000 Google employees signed a petition and a dozen resigned in protest over the company’s involvement in developing technology that could lead to deaths. On June 1, Diane, Greene, the head of Google’s cloud unit, told her employees the company would not renew its contract when it expired next year because of the backlash, Gizmodo reported.
Defense contracts are highly sought after by U.S. corporations because there are vast amounts of money at stake. The Defense Department spends about $300 billion on vendors annually—and the contracts are often self perpetuating. Google is reportedly eager for the Pentagon’s cloud computing business, worth a potential $10 billion over a decade, which is going out to bid later this year. Backing out of Maven, and deferring to the demands of a large workforce with qualms about defense work, probably won’t help its chances.
It’s hard to imagine Boeing, General Electric, or any traditional defense contractor making a similar decision. But Google and its parent company Alphabet are famously solicitous of their 85,050 employees, offering perks like free meals, exercise classes, and laundry services on campus, while giving staffers the freedom work on their pet projects.
Google has been engaged in a decades-long battle with rivals like Facebook and Apple for the best programming talent in Silicon Valley, and it’s loathe to give coders a reason to reconsider joining the company. As long as millennials say they prioritize working for socially responsible employers, even above pay, talent-dependent tech companies like Google can ill-afford to ignore their employees’ wishes.