It happened at parties and first dates. “I work at Google,” I’d say, and then the impressed expression, clicking tongue, possibly an “oooh,” and I’d rush to clarify: no, those reactions were not at all appropriate. It wasn’t the Google they were thinking of — not really.
The Google offices in the faraway Seattle suburb of Bothell, Wash., do share some common ground with the offices people know about, in Mountain View, New York and Paris, and, more locally, the affiliates in Kirkland and Fremont. There were break rooms with massage chairs and bright, Google-colored couches; mini-kitchens stocked with snacks; and as much foosball, ping-pong, pool and video games as you needed to fill your forty-minute lunch break and two additional ten-minute breaks, if you so chose. Whimsical murals, inspired by the kitschiest Internet culture had to offer, adorned the walls of the open offices, and every conference room was named after a different Tom Cruise movie.
The message of this workplace, nestled anonymously among countless other beige buildings in Bothell’s vast North Creek office park, was clear: we were here to have fun— to work hard, as the ubiquitous rallying cry of the modern tech company goes, and play hard.
The workers in this office would probably also be in keeping with the public’s idea of what Google is all about: we were predominantly white and Asian, and, most noticeably, we were overwhelmingly, almost exclusively, young. At twenty-eight, I rounded out the older end of the bell curve of workers at the office; the vast majority of my coworkers were between 23 and 25. None of this will come as a surprise: youth is inextricably linked to the image of a company like Google, which is, in the eyes of the public, cutting-edge and innovative and ever-changing. It stands to reason that such a place would want to have on its roster only the “best and brightest,” fresh-faced recent college grads with a passion for technology and new ideas. Youth looks good for PR purposes; the image of Google as ingenue has stuck. I myself was caught up in that image, at first— it’s hard not to feel won over by an office tour that includes so many recreational activities, orientation materials layered thick with edgy humor, and the sight of a couple twenty-somethings tossing a ball back and forth over a cubicle wall.
It wasn’t until I was a few weeks into my position as a contract worker for not-quite-Google, where our paychecks came from a staffing agency and were about $400 per week short of what an actual Google employee makes, that I began to understand another crucial element of the youthful atmosphere: a young workforce is an uninformed workforce. When the magic word “Google” is slapped across one’s resume as the first entry after college, the first “real” employment, the promise of that name and the places it can take your career is just about enough to drown out the realities of working there.
Life as a Google contract worker
Here’s how it works: contract workers at the Google office in Bothell work in areas including quality assurance and data verification for Google maps and apps. These workers are paid, hired, employed and fired by two national staffing agencies, Randstad and Aerotek. The two representatives from each of these agencies, known as “the vendors,” are the people to whom you answer if you’re late or need a day off or your productivity isn’t what it should be. They are HR people, unconnected with Google processes. In fact, because of confidentiality agreements, they’re technically not allowed to know the ins and outs of what their employees are actually doing. This, coupled with their final say on who comes and goes, leads to frequent conversations like this one:
VENDOR: I had a look at your metrics this week. Your numbers are pretty low.
EMPLOYEE: Yeah, I’ve been having some trouble with the tool.
VENDOR: Is there anything in particular we can do to help you with your prod?
EMPLOYEE: Well, there’s a function in the tool that [some specific function in the tool that can lead to slowing down].
VENDOR responds with silence, and a blank stare, since they have never seen the actual tool before, or been trained on the actual tasks EMPLOYEE is doing, then reiterates the need for EMPLOYEE to get their numbers up.
Below vendors are team leads, who oversee a group of 40 to 50 employees, and below them are pod leads, each of whom is responsible for a “pod” of about ten people. An employee’s most direct supervisor, the pod lead, knows the most about their performance day-to-day, their strengths and weaknesses, their changing metrics and what they mean. It follows, then, that a pod lead’s input is sought out in discussions with vendors, particularly when dealing with an employee whose performance is suffering. Being in closest contact with the employee, they can shed the most light on what’s really happening. Often, though, this step is skipped. These outside hiring agencies have the ultimate power and the ultimate say in what happens to their employees, despite having no actual contact with them, or, indeed, any idea of what they’re actually doing.
I will say at this point, in the interest of full disclosure, that I was fired from my contract position, due to poor productivity. Google is constantly struggling in a battle of quality vs. quantity. Based on what I experienced, quality usually loses. I was told by my team lead and vendors that I had a problem maintaining quality and quantity simultaneously— that “when your numbers go up, your quality goes down.” I submit that this describes a pretty universal truth about what happens when human beings speed up while performing complex tasks—they tend to make more errors. Google knows this all too well. In fact, one day, my team received an email from Google top brass, our liaison to California (where the “real” Google is) telling us that productivity bars were being suspended until further notice, because people were going so quickly that quality was suffering. Out in the real world, users were taking to the Internet to complain about errors in our product— this kind of PR nightmare obviously trumped whatever deadline there was to get through everything rapidly.
Google higher-ups were telling us to slow down and be careful. They were yelling at pod leads for letting us get sloppy. Meanwhile, the vendors, whom Google had entrusted with the final say on hiring and firing decisions, still had nothing to go on but numbers, because the details of the processes were a mystery to them. No matter how many times it was stressed to go slow and focus on quality, these words of wisdom ultimately meant nothing to the people who held our jobs in the palms of their hands.
I should say here that there were also bars set for quality; they were handled with all the nuance we’d come to expect from our vendors. We were allowed a 5% error rate, without much leniency awarded to considerations like all errors being weighted the same amount, or small sample sizes which made the task considerably more difficult (one mistake in a sample of five is a 20% error rate). Most of the time, though, quality was shoved aside in favor of productivity, because, unlike quality numbers, productivity numbers were concrete, not subjective, and couldn’t be debated or open to interpretation. The ease of dictating that employees move at a certain speed far outweighed what would surely be a more sustainable strategy of committing to delivering a quality product; this from a company whose name has become synonymous with excellence and precision.
If these sound like rigid performance standards to be held to, consider for a moment the “performance” demonstrated by the people who set them: Once every couple weeks, for example, we’d receive a strange email from one of the vendors, something foreign and official-sounding, and then, a few minutes later, a retraction: “Sorry everyone, that was only meant to go to a couple people” (These emails not intended for public consumption ranged from innocuous logistical details to less innocuous lists of employees slated to be fired). Financial incentives that employees won for good performance were often delivered late. Employee start dates were delayed, sometimes for months. Job duties were misrepresented. One coworker was promoted, then demoted, in the space of a couple weeks, when it was decided that the new position he’d been hired for would essentially be canceled. How long, I often wonder, would these employers have lasted if they were held to a 5% error rate in their own work?
You might think that in these conditions, people are being fired left and right. In fact, there is almost always a goodbye party or two each week, but mostly it’s because of people leaving voluntarily to take new jobs (last I heard, the team was struggling from a real morale problem). So is everyone else working diligently every day, using their allotted ten minute breaks for responsibly brief foosball games before returning to work briskly, at a less than 5% error rate? If you ask the employees of the Bothell office, they’d probably tell you something different.
First, they’d ask whether you were talking about someone with Randstad or Aerotek, since the two have notoriously uneven standards for their employees. Simply put: Randstad are hardasses, and Aerotek are softies. If you see someone whose numbers are consistently low week after week, and they continue to stick around, odds are they’re Aerotek. Odds are better still that they’ve made a habit of befriending the vendors. In your first week at Google Bothell, it’s likely that someone will take you aside and advise you to cozy up to your vendors, be they Aerotek or Randstad; that being chummy, stopping by to say hello unsolicited, will go a long way down the line if you should run into trouble with, say— you guessed it — your numbers. I never entertained this strategy, and found an affinity with my coworkers who seemed equally grossed out by the idea. All the vendors happened to be women; how would we feel, I wonder, if female employees were being encouraged to bat their eyelashes at the men in charge? “Haven’t we all seen Mad Men?” I thought. Don’t we understand that this is not the way a modern workplace is supposed to, well, work? If this all sounds like conspiracy theory stuff, keep in mind that the fateful “numbers” of the entire team were made public to everyone once a day; it was possible to literally watch different people being held to different standards.
An ‘anything goes’ workplace atmosphere
Most of my coworkers, I’d wager, would nod their heads eagerly while reading this article so far— that the labor practices are cockeyed is pretty clear to everyone, hence the constant trail of people leaving to find something better to do. But a workplace also has a culture to it, the moments between the work. In an environment so laden with fun and whimsy, the Google Bothell office was an “anything goes” atmosphere — unfortunately, in a workplace, anything shouldn’t go. “The job is boring,” a typical Bothell employee might say, “and the vendors are a pain, but at least it’s fun working here.” I disagree.
It wasn’t uncommon to overhear loud, raucous conversations between coworkers, which might have veered into territory that a more buttoned-up workplace would deem too sexual, or political, or personal, or just plain offensive. There was a vague, unspoken “If you have a problem, you’re free to ask the people saying the objectionable things to stop” policy. We’ve seen this logic before: a police officer must technically ask someone for permission to search his or her car, at which point that person is “free” to say no — never mind that that person might feel unempowered in the face of a law enforcement official, or not even know they have the right to refuse. If people were loudly rallying around a sexist joke in the office, it would be one offended party’s responsibility to approach a group of four or five, which might include a pod lead or two, and make an unsupported, unprecedented move to tell the lot of them that what they were doing was inappropriate and could they please stop. “Yes, officer,” we mumble, nine times out of ten, popping the trunk.
These were, keep in mind, public, out-loud conversations, in an office where “pinging” was always an option (I won’t pretend not to have had my share of off-color conversations with coworkers within the silent confines of my computer screen). If we ever had hopes of curbing the behavior, myself and who knows how many others who felt the same discomfort eventually gave up, and learned to turn up our headphones and grit our teeth or head to the bathroom when the daily round of sexual innuendo started up —I became so adept at tuning things out that I should list it as a relevant task under “Google” on my resume.
[Previously on GeekWire: An open letter to Jeff Bezos: A contract worker’s take on Amazon.com]
The vendors should be the HR arbiters for situations like these. My own experience in this was limited to asking once, foolishly, if there was any way to get the noise level down in the area where I worked. (I had, after all, been asked if there was anything they could do to help me with my poor numbers.) I was told that this was a “casual environment” and that the noisiness was par for the course. The youth and fun of everything left a great deal of wiggle room for the kinds of problems more regimented human resources departments are put in place to prevent. On the occasions when there was an accusation of something un-ignorable, like sexual harassment, people contacted vendors and were essentially ignored. They were told they could move their seats away from the offending parties, but no one was formally fired for those accusations. There’s a difference between fun and unsafe, and the vendors in charge of the office in Bothell erred in the wrong direction.
All of these mistreatments need a young workforce to be able to continue. When those in charge were contacted about fostering a more professional work environment, or a safer one, part of the insufficient reaction undoubtedly stemmed from surprise: these kinds of requests didn’t usually happen. People were happy to be in a place with so many break rooms and such a culturally lax atmosphere. When a friend of mine went for her exit interview, one vendor was alarmed to see that she’d written that she wished there were more diversity in the office.
“Diversity?” the vendor asked, as if it were a foreign word. “You mean— literally, diversity?”
My friend patiently explained that on our team, for example, we were mostly young, and mostly white. At the word white, the vendor panicked, offering a stammered explanation that they didn’t actively recruit only white people, as if no one had ever had a discussion about diversity initiatives in a workplace before (In fact, the vendor wasn’t entirely right— the staffing agencies’ first crack at hiring always goes to references from current employees, who are offered bonuses for a successful referral. This kind of networking is one of the ways that workplaces stay homogenous, and keeps some minority groups in such low numbers in corporate offices like this one). Perhaps Google proper has standards for the diversity of its staff; since contract workers don’t really “count” as employees, those restrictions are mostly likely lifted for them.
[Editor's Note: Google declined to comment on this piece.]
Perhaps this all sounds familiar. This, you might be saying, is the life of a contract worker (although you might be surprised to hear these tales from a company that’s so universally praised as a wonderful place to work): it’s the nature of the beast to be paid less, worked to more rigorous standards, left to fend for oneself in a laid-back office which can border on a hostile workplace. That may be true, I’d say in response, but it doesn’t make it right. There is nothing to be gained from unfair practices that push people to the limits of what they’re willing to endure from their employers. Forget for a minute the question of whether it’s ethical to treat workers this way; it’s also ineffective. In Japan, Scandinavian countries, and countless other places that are dwarfing the United States in the global marketplace, companies have ditched the Draconian idea that ruthlessness is what it takes to get ahead and are showing their employees more respect with profitable results. Anecdotally, I can say that I watched as my team hemorrhaged employees week after week, including higher-paid people in leadership positions, as the palpably poor morale drove them to seek out new jobs— a fact the outside world might find hard to believe, if all they knew of Google was its celebrated public face.
When we think about companies like Google, which are lauded as revolutionary, luxurious places to work, we must take these “lesser” offices into account to get the full picture. In our office, the vendors were generally seen as the root of our workplace evils, but it’s misplaced to let Google off the hook; after all, this was happening on their watch. Someone had to sign off on the cost-cutting decision to have outside contracting companies to come in and run the place. A company’s title can only carry so much gravitas for so long. If things continue as they are, Google will continue to lose a portion of its workforce to other companies, which make up for what they lack in caché in transparency, accountability, and fair business practices. If companies like this one don’t start treating their contract workers like they’re people as talented and worthy as their “real” employees, the phrase “I’m a contractor for Google” will no longer be met with gasps of awe, but with a pitying, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Raphaela Weissman is a writer whose work has appeared in New York Press, L Magazine, Bookslut, the Gallatin Review, and the Euphony Journal; and an activist with Social Justice Fund Northwest. She lives in Seattle and is originally from Woodstock, New York.
Google logo photo by Melanie Phung, via Flickr.