Two Google employees say the company retaliated after they organized a walkout

The alleged retaliation, which Google denies took place, follows the worldwide walkout by employees in November.
Google staff stage a walkout at the company's U.K. headquarters in London
Google employees participate in a walkout at the company's U.K. headquarters in London on Nov. 1, 2018, during a global campaign over the tech giant's handling of sexual harassment.Tolga Akmen / AFP - Getty Images file

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By David Ingram

SAN FRANCISCO — Two Google employees who have been active in criticizing the company's management over the treatment of women and other workplace issues are accusing the tech giant of retaliating against them, a person familiar with their accusation said Monday.

The alleged retaliation, which Google denies took place, follows a worldwide walkout by employees in November to protest the company’s payment of tens of millions of dollars in exit packages to executives accused of sexual misconduct.

Federal law generally prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who complain about harassment or other forms of discrimination.

At the time of the walkout, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said he supported the protest, reassuring employees that they would have the support they needed if they wished to participate.

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Two of the walkout’s organizers, Claire Stapleton, a marketing manager at YouTube, and Meredith Whittaker, an artificial intelligence researcher, are telling fellow employees that Google hasn’t followed through with that promise.

On Monday, Whittaker said in a message posted to internal Google mailing lists that she was told this month that her role would be “changed dramatically,” Wired magazine reported. She said she was told that she would have to “abandon” her work on artificial intelligence ethics and at a center she co-founded at New York University, the magazine said.

Stapleton said in the message that Google had demoted her and instructed her to take medical leave, even though she was not sick, Wired reported. She hired a lawyer and the company ultimately reversed the demotion after an investigation, the magazine said.

A person familiar with their accusations who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed the contents of the internal company message.

Whittaker and Stapleton are planning a “town hall” meeting Friday for employees to share stories and strategize, the person confirmed.

Google on Monday denied that any retaliation had taken place.

“We prohibit retaliation in the workplace, and investigate all allegations,” Google said in a statement sent to NBC News. “Employees and teams are regularly and commonly given new assignments, or reorganized, to keep pace with evolving business needs. There has been no retaliation here.”

David Ingram reported from San Francisco, and Jason Abbruzzese from New York.

Jason Abbruzzese contributed.