Federal regulators have ordered Google to assure employees they are allowed to speak out on political and workplace issues, people familiar with the matter say, as part of a settlement of formal complaints that the search giant punishes those who do just that.  The move from the National Labor Relations Board offers Google an escape hatch from a thorny issue that has roiled the business in recent years. Although Google executives have long bragged about having a workplace culture designed to encourage open debate, current and former employees across the political spectrum have complained that they have been retaliated against for raising concerns about equality and freedom of speech.
The NLRB's settlement comes in response to a pair of complaints about Google's reaction to workplace dissent. The settlement orders Google to inform current employees that they are free to speak to the media — without having to ask Google for higher permissions — on topics such as workplace diversity and compensation, regardless of whether Google views such topics as inappropriate for the workplace.
The settlement was approved by an agency director this week, according to a document. It is slated to go into effect after an appeals period.
The NLRB action is the second formal reminder to Google in a week to stay within the law. Last week, Google’s YouTube unit settled an investigation into alleged violations of child privacy law with a $ 1
Google, a unit of
is also in the early days of separate investigations from the Justice Department and a group of attorneys general representing nearly every state into its dominant online advertising platform.  Private employers have the ability to limit certain speech within their workplaces, and late last month Google moved to prune office debates among its more than 100,000 full-time employees, adding new guardrails for discussions of nonwork topics and encouragement to avoid potentially disruptive conversations. Among the new rules: "Discussions that make other Googlers feel like they don't belong nowhere."
Federal law protects activity like forming a union and conversations about improving pay, among other types of conduct.
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Still, current and former employees have said Google has overreached, or at times not done enough to protect their speech inside the workplace. The NLRB settlement says Google must actively notify employees that the search giant has killed rules that clamp down on employees sharing certain confidential information with one another, or with the media. The settlement doesn't spell out exactly what those rules covered.
Right-leaning employees say expressing their beliefs can make them lepers among Google hiring managers, while left-leaning staff have been stymied in attempts to protest YouTube's evolving policies on hate speech, among other issues.
Some of the more outspoken staffers were later offered pay packages to leave the company, these staffers say.
One complainant, ex-Google engineer Kevin Cernekee, has said he was fired for expressing unpopular right-leaning political beliefs to fellow employees on the freewheeling internal message boards. Google says he was fired for misusing company equipment. President Trump tweeted support for Mr. Cernekee after The Wall Street Journal wrote about the former employee's allegations of bias last month.
Google declined to comment this week on the NLRB action or Mr. Cernekee's case.
The other complainant is a current Google employee whose identity remains private. He alleges he was punished for posting unflattering opinions about a high-level Google executive on a
The NLRB's settlement is a victory for Google as it makes a formal determination as to whether Google was wrong. Mr. Cernekee had asked to be reinstated, with back pay; he will receive neither under the settlement terms.
The NLRB is also ordering Google to withdraw Mr. Cernekee's final warning letter, which said he violated the "Respect Each Other" section of the code of conduct in five comments to message boards.
Attorneys for Mr. Cernekee and the second complainant objected in writing to the settlement, saying they deserve a hearing to air their views.
Write to Rob Copeland at [email protected]
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