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Should Big Tech Whistleblowers Quit Their Jobs?
Leaving is easy. Staying is constructive.
Whenever big tech employees protest their companies’ policies, there’s always a contingent of people who demand they leave their jobs. "Quit, you losers!,” one such critic said last month, speaking of whistleblowers at Facebook. “At this point working there shows you have no values.”
Whether it’s Facebook employees standing up for election integrity, or Amazon employees protesting warehouse conditions, some people will suggest these employees are ‘complicit’ in wrongdoing if they continue to draw a paycheck from the companies they decry.
But leaving in protest may actually do more harm than good. While quitting may feel comforting in today’s all-or-nothing world — and telling someone to quit especially so — the people most likely to bring about change are those who push diligently from the inside. Not those who rage quit.
“It's important for a dissenter to stay in the organization as long as they can to make a productive difference,” Gregg Pascal Zachary, a technology historian, told me. “Leaving too quickly suggests that you didn't have enough commitment to the organization’s overall health.”
Showing a commitment to company well-being — even with big issues in dispute — matters if dissenters want to be heard. For decades, managers have studied Kent State professor William I. Gorden’s classification of workplace dissent, and it doesn’t view leaving kindly. Gorden classifies worker dissent under four attributes: active, passive, constructive, destructive. When an employee speaks up inside a company, management sees them as both active and constructive, making them predisposed to listen and act. When an employee quits, management sees them as active but destructive, and their message tends to get lost.
Being active and constructive is particularly impactful inside the tech giants, since these companies build cultures that prioritize listening to employees and taking their ideas seriously (perhaps except for Apple). Without internal dissenters, tech giant leadership would listen only to unskeptical voices, something that’s led them to underestimate their capacity for destruction in the past.
“You want good guys at bad companies,” Gigi Sohn, a fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law and Policy, told me. “They can make it known that things are going awry, and that could lead to change.”
If leadership doesn’t take their message to heart, dissenting employees could still seek to push change via other methods — like sharing evidence of wrongdoing with journalists — but they’ll still be most effective while inside the companies. “Even if they can't change the corporate culture, maybe they can leak information that will go to the press, and that will change the corporate culture,” Sohn said.
Tim Bray, the Amazon VP who quit in protest after the company fired whistleblowers who spoke up for its warehouse workers, gained notoriety for leaving. But he likely had more impact discussing his concerns with management before quitting. “I did, in fact, raise the issue internally and had some extensive discussions by before I left,” he told me. “I felt a duty as an employee to express my opinion strongly to the right people.”
The tech giants’ employees may well be the most effective check on these companies’ power. Washington has all but failed to regulate them. Users haven’t effectively organized. Advertisers keep spending despite their performative temporary boycotts. Employees, however, still have some power. “The only constituency that really has leverage over the big tech companies is the employees of those tech companies,” Bloomberg Beta head Roy Bahat told me in last week’s Big Technology Podcast. For tech giant employees, it would be an abdication of responsibility to give up that leverage given their capacity to use it for good.
This Week On the Big Technology Podcast: Bloomberg’s Eric Newcomer, the Financial Times’ Hannah Murphy, and OneZero’s Brian Merchant
When the Big Technology Podcast debuted last month, I spoke with The Verge’s Casey Newton about why people can’t stand the tech press. Our wide-ranging discussion explored how tech reporters should be more upfront about their values, how algorithms and social media reframe their work, and why some go astray in the quest for retweets. But there was more to discuss.
This week, three talented reporters — Bloomberg’s Eric Newcomer, the Financial Times’ Hannah Murphy, and OneZero’s Brian Merchant — join the show to pick up where Newton and I left off.
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