As It Happens

Google employee who helped organize walkout quits, says the company 'kneecapped' her career

Claire Stapleton has quit her job as marketing manager at YouTube, which is owned by Google, because she felt the company was retaliating against and her fellow organizers.

Claire Stapleton helped stage a global protest against the company's handling of sexual misconduct allegations

Claire Stapleton, left, and Meredith Whittaker, right, address hundreds of Google employees during a protest rally on Nov. 1, 2018, in New York. (Karen Ng/Submitted by Claire Stapleton)
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When Claire Stapleton first started working at Google's Mountain View, Calif., campus in 2007, she says she was mesmerized by the magic of it all. 

But less than a year after helping to organize a massive Google walkout over the company's handling of sexual misconduct allegations, the shine has worn off.

Stapleton has quit her job as a marketing manager at YouTube, which is owned by Google, because she felt the company was retaliating against her and her fellow organizers by branding them with a "a scarlet letter" in the workplace. 

Google denies the allegations, saying in an emailed statement that the company did a "thorough investigation of her claims and found no evidence of retaliation."

Here is part of Stapleton's conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

How did it feel to write that goodbye note [on Medium] to your colleagues after all those years at Google?

It was unbelievably emotional and I couldn't believe that after all these years that I was leaving on that note. But I also felt a tremendous sense of community and purpose that had sprung up around the walkout and since.

So while I have left and am going to the "outside," I hope that I left a message for my colleagues and all the people who are continuing to fight for what's right there, internally.

You came right from college into working at Google in 2007. You loved working there. What was it you liked about the culture?

There was incredible lore around Google's culture — its openness and transparency and the collaboration and all these incredibly smart people. And it just felt to me like this utopia of what a company could be.

People often say, you know, when the spaceship lands in your backyard, you get on it. And that's exactly how I felt.

Workers protest against Google's handling of sexual misconduct allegations at the company's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters on Nov. 1, 2018. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

You went on maternity leave for while. You came back. Did you find that the culture had changed?

I did. The world had become a more complicated place, it seemed to me.

The leadership was navigating a very complicated set of decisions, a complicated set of strategies, and it no longer felt like employees were really being pulled along with that, which is their prerogative, but it did seem to sort of fundamentally change the tone of the culture.

The walkout was about the handling of sexual harassment — very different than some of these sort of strategic company decisions — but, similarly, it felt that they were being handled in a way which ... inspired less confidence in employees.

Your walkout last November is what you sort of date major changes in your relationship with your employer to. Just remind people what happened.

There was a news story at the end of October last year about a ... $90-million dollar payout that had been made to a sort of known harasser in the company, Andy Rubin, who was the longtime head of the Android division.

[Editor's note: In a statement to the New York Times, Rubin denied allegations he coerced an employee into performing oral sex on him. Google's own internal investigations found the allegation credible, according to confidential sources who spoke to the Times.]

The story itself was outrageous, but I was on a Google moms mailing list. It's a very, very active internal community. It's all anonymous. And people started sharing stories of things that happened to them in their careers in technology, and it was really eye-opening to me.

I was really interested to see how all of the leadership would respond to this because people were actually in pain, I think, seeing what happened and how the executives handled the Andy Rubin situation.

When executives at that weekly meeting spoke to it, it was so unsatisfactory to me. I didn't feel that they were really taking a look at the message that employees were sending, and demonstrating that things were going change and that they were going to take accountability and that this wouldn't happen again.

So I was inspired to call for women of the company — but it quickly became just as many men — to just register dissatisfaction with executives and the leadership and to be heard.

A protester holds a sign that reads, 'Not OK Google.' (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

Were you surprised that so many people responded to your call for a walkout?

I was completely shocked. ... In a way, it was a real reinforcement of Google culture because so many people collaborated on putting together this global walkout. And I think something like 40 offices, 20,000 people took part. 

You're leaving because you feel you were retaliated against for having done that. What evidence do you have for that?

I was in the corporate marketing division of YouTube for five years — always a strong performer, always sort of moving up.

And I had a conversation with my manager in January in which she informed me that I was essentially being demoted. So my role was being diminished and I would lose about half my team.

She was proposing giving me another project or two of things that were almost completely disconnected from what I'd been working on. But the message was clear — that my role and my influence was being marginalized within the team.

I didn't immediately think that this is retaliation. I just wanted to understand where this is coming from. And as I started to ask these questions then and raise some alarm bells, it significantly made things worse for me.

This, you know, elapsed over a period of months. My work was, you know, routed to other people. There seems to be no possibility to kind of restitute my role or put it back together — until I hired a lawyer. And at that point, they put my job back together and unrolled the demotion.

But it was never quite the same. And my leadership role had clearly been kneecapped on the team.

I also understood that other organizers in the company were experiencing the same thing.

At one point, they asked you to take medical leave, is that right?

I was put with a top person in HR. She heard my story and, you know, let me know the next day that she figured out the perfect solution, which is that I should take a medical leave.

And I told her that it didn't really seem right because I was wasn't sick. Sure, I was stressed out by the situation that was unfolding. But, you know, I wasn't unwell. I wasn't unable to work.

You were planning on going on maternity leave. So does that mean you're leaving now and you just won't go back to Google?

I'm leaving before what would have been my maternity leave, and I left the company so I won't be returning.

Google says they thanked you for your work at Google, wished you the best, and they said that "our employee relations team did a thorough investigation of her claims and found no evidence of retaliation. They found that Claire's management team supported her contributions to our workplace, including awarding her their team Culture Award for her role in the Walkout." So how do you explain that?

The culture award is an interesting one. There was a weekly email that goes out to my department and I was mentioned in that for my work on the walkout along with a few others on the team. But I don't think that anyone would call that a departmental award.

My lawyer had expected and prepared me to expect this exact result — that most times, the employee relations team comes back and says your claim is unsubstantiated.

If it wasn't retaliation in my case, I would love to understand what it was and why this happened to my role after, you know, so many years as a high-performing, upward-trajectory heading Googler.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Ashley Mak. Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.