Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent a strongly worded memo in the wake of President Donald Trump’s orders restricting immigration, but he’s facing pressure from within by employees who want him to do more.
At a meeting on Thursday, the day before the executive orders were announced, senior Google executives including Pichai, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt, and public policy chief Caroline Atkinson met with employees at the company’s weekly “TGIF” meeting, a longstanding affair where Google and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) executives discuss new products and other Google agenda items.
But this meeting was particularly tense, according to two people who watched it unfold. President Trump was widely expected to sign an executive order affecting immigration and refugee policy, and employees wanted to know why Google’s top brass wasn’t mounting a more aggressive campaign against it.
“[I want] Google to take positions, this is a fascist regime, this isn’t normal,” said one Google employee from Iran, which is among the countries affected by a travel ban Trump went on to sign on Friday.
“Some of us are scared, we don’t know what to do,” said another Google staffer. “What is Google doing about it, and what is Google doing about it today?”
In response, Pichai, who is himself an immigrant from India, said “we are weighing our options with [the policy team] and trying to come to the best solutions.”
Pichai then tried to explain the rationale behind Google’s pragmatism. “If you publicly take a strong position, once they’ve identified you’re completely on one side, you lose the ability to come to a rational position,” he said. “We get very strong reactions when we try to reach out to the other side. Taking public positions is productive in some cases, and counterproductive in others.”
Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, who has long been the search giant’s top emissary to Washington, said he was “upset” about the order. Atkinson, Alphabet’s policy chief, added that the company supports “comprehensive immigration reform.”
Schmidt was very influential in the administration of President Barack Obama and had every reason to expect to have clout in a Hillary Clinton presidency. But Alphabet now finds itself with fewer points of leverage or natural allies in the Trump administration, and that frustration came out in the meeting.
“These prejudicial actions are discriminatory and anti-globalization, and I did everything I could to cause a different outcome,” Schmidt said. “There are limits to what we can do, there’s no question if the company is asked to do something that’s counter to our values, we would oppose it and actively fight it.”
Schmidt has reportedly spent time in recent weeks meeting with the White House and congressional Republicans in an attempt to build alliances with the conservative leadership. The New York Times has reported that Google funded a $50,000 drinks and schmoozing event earlier in January aimed at wooing Republican lawmakers. Both Schmidt and Larry Page attended Trump’s December sit-down with tech industry leaders.
The people at Thursday’s Google meetings aid that while it was somber and tense, some felt the company was making the right moves. “I will say that I appreciated Sundar’s email to employees and how Google instantly set up an internal resource page for anyone affected by the ban,” one said. Another added, “my reaction isn’t that they’re full of shit.”
Across Silicon Valley, tech companies are grappling with how best to respond to Trump’s executive order — and with how their own employees and customers are reacting to it.
At the ride-hailing giant Uber, a software developer named Eric Butler took to Twitter to ask CEO Travis Kalanick to resign from his position on Trump’s business advisory council. In a Saturday statement posted to Facebook, Kalanick offered tepid criticism of the executive order and said that he would raise his concerns with Trump in person at a meeting on Friday.
A spokesperson for Google declined to comment. The company said in a statement released shortly after the order was signed on Friday that the company is “concerned about the impact of this order and any proposals that could impose restrictions on Googlers and their families, or that create barriers to bringing great talent to the U.S.”