This year has felt like silicon valley’s Arab Spring – a pattern of internal protests across different companies. It’s too soon to say if they’ll cause a permanent change in the way things are done, or just a superficial blip in the status quo.

At google: air gap, maven, dragonfly. At microsoft, ICE detention. At amazon, rekognition. The resolutions were various, with the G9 who walked out of air gap coming closest to getting their way.

This trend if it continues will affect how high-skill workers are recruited and managed. The public marches for legislative and judicial relief which worked in the 20th century are out of gas as a force for positive change. Multinationals, as rich and powerful as governments and with farther reach, are the best new forum for change, and principled insiders have their ear.

  1. CSR values treated as social contract
  2. High profile defections & pervasive leaks
  3. Salaried status at multinationals is the new citizenship

CSR values treated as social contract

Boy you sure are different than your TV commercials. – T. Callahan

Remember when corporate values were cheesy? Remember the KPMG anthem that leaked circa 2000? Remember onboarding at any big bank? Somewhere in the 20th century companies got ‘values’ – not brands, which have been used to sell packaged goods forever, but internally-directed pseudo-marketing that makes everybody cringe.

But then new-breed tech companies reinvented workplace culture and came up with values they actually believed. The pitch was ‘we’re different, you can come here and change the world without compromising your values’, and when they were small it may have been true. Big companies outgrew their founding values, but those values are still being used to sell the company to new recruits, who drink it up like kool aid.

Those new recruits, now well into their careers, are seeing their companies change as they go from high-growth to territory defense mode. They aren’t happy about it, especially when the companies act in conflict with the companies’ stated values or the employees’ personal values. They haven’t forgotten they were recruited on some promise like ‘we’re different, we really care’. Now they’re coming knocking to cash that check.

This isn’t a legal thing; companies aren’t democracies and they’re not contractually bound to their employees here. But insiders have all kinds of information and leverage and they seem to think some norm has been violated.

High profile defections & pervasive leaks

I believe that Gandhi’s views were the most enlightened of all the political men of our time. We should strive to do things in his spirit. Not to use violence in fighting for our cause, but by non-participation in anything you believe is evil. – A. Einstein

Many of the scientists on the manhattan project were german defectors who were afraid of the nazis having the first bomb. In a world of hi-tech multinationals, high profile defectors and dissidents have the same outsize effect.

Prominent leakers have had a huge effect this decade. Take Snowden (who leaked government information but worked at a big contractor and revealed information about corporate collusion with and victimization by the NSA) or Susan Fowler.

Defections are harder to track because senior technocrats don’t always get loud even when they leave for reasons of principle; it makes it hard for them to land their next job and they’re sometimes contractually bound to not disparage their former employer. It will be interesting to see if this changes in the next 2 years.

Big companies with morally questionable activities will have to be much more careful going forward about how they share information internally. Tech companies for a while have been claiming that their culture is ‘radical transparency, just don’t leak’ and have gotten upset when those expectations are violated (boz at facebook bemoaning the effect of leaks on debate, googlers angry about live leaks during all hands). But (1) they were never internally transparent about anything sensitive, and (2) it’s naive to think 10 thousand people can keep a secret.

As big tech embraces ML everywhere, information siloing will get harder. ML requires tinkering with the input data and simulation environments to get it right. This means giving some people on the engineering team exact information about what the system will be used for.

Salaried status at multinationals is the new citizenship

Corporate values started as cheese and lately evolved into kool-aid. This new third phase is something like a social contract between the company and its employees, one which includes how the company treats external third parties.

Multinationals aren’t subject to any single law across all their operations. By contorting their internal organs they can optimally gerrymander any piece of themselves to avoid taxes, wages, environmental responsibility, or even accountability for violent crimes. American case law has defanged the alien torts statute as used against companies, and small countries have a hard time attracting multinational investment without agreeing to extraterritorial arbitration.

Employees seem to have a shot at enforcing a code of behavior on their employer. Governments can’t or won’t. And consumers when given the option to pick any two of ‘cheap’, ‘high quality’, ‘ethically produced’, have made the obvious choice.

As gig work expands, salaried employment status may take on a coveted and special status like citizenship in Rome or the Greek city-states – a privileged group of people with automatic rights and the ear of the rulers. This year’s protests feel like the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the company that will thread through the next decade.

Most importantly: senior managers, be careful what values you advertise. Your employees are listening and they’ll make sure you put your money where your mouth is.