Google is infamous for all of the perks that they offer to their employees. Employees can grab lunch at one of the many restaurants at their sprawling business campus in Mountain View. If an employee has a new baby, they get over a month of paid leave regardless if they are a father or a mother. However, not all things at Google are amazing for their employees, namely some of their employee confidentiality policies.
All companies have various policies to which employees are required to adhere. Some of the policies have to do with protecting a company’s reputation and business, such as policies designed to protect trade secrets or discourage employees from leaving the company to work for local rivals. Other policies are necessary to ensure that the company adheres to all applicable state and federal laws, including policies prohibiting sexual harassment and providing guidelines for maintaining a safe workplace. Sometimes, these policies can be so overly restrictive that they violate state and federal law.
A product manager is currently suing Google on behalf of all of the company’s California-based employees over having internal confidentiality policies so severe that they are violating the California Labor Code and federal law. These violations include prohibiting employees and former employees from discussing information such as workplace conditions and wages with outsiders, talking about even the most mundane aspects of any on-the-job experience they may have had at Google to future employers, and mentioning potential violations of the law that Google may have committed to anyone inside or outside the company. The manager is bringing this lawsuit under California’s Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA).
PAGA Has Changed How California Employees Can Challenge Labor Law Violations
Normally, if a person believes that their employer has violated their workplace rights, they are required to file a complaint with the state or federal Department of Labor, depending on which labor laws they are accusing their employer of violating. Once the complaint is filed, the Department of Labor conducts an investigation into the company to determine whether the company is actually committing a violation. The Department of Labor may then suggest that the employee attempt to resolve their issue with their company through another method for resolving matters other than going to court, such as going through mediation or subjecting their case to a hearing board. Typically, the employee who has filed the complaint will be required to exhaust all of the alternative suggest by the Department of Labor before they are allowed to bring a lawsuit against the company.
Prior to the passing of PAGA, people working in California would have had to follow all of these steps and rely on the California Department of Labor to provide them an opportunity to obtain any financial compensation for violations that the company may have committed. Once PAGA was enacted in 2004, employees in California were finally free to be able to bring private civil lawsuits against their employers to obtain financial damages from a labor violation without having to rely on the California Department of Labor to pursue these damages on their behalf. However, employees are still required to file a notice with the California Department of Labor to let the government know what violations were committed by their employer and how they attempted to get their employer to make amends for the violations 65 days before they can formally start a lawsuit against their employer.
Google’s Attempts to Protect Itself Are Running Afoul of Employee Rights
All employees are required to adhere to these policies even after they leave Google because they have to sign an Exit Certification whereby they promise to continue to follow the terms of the Confidentiality Agreement even though they are no longer employed by Google. By prohibiting former employees from talking about even the most basic aspects of their career at Google to potential future employers, Google effectively prohibits its former employees from working for its competitors or even in the same general industry. While a company can prevent former employees from working for companies that are in direct competition with them for a short amount of time, the restriction must be reasonable in terms of location and time so as to not destroy a person’s career in a particular industry. Since Google’s Exit Certification does not have time or geographic limitations, it effectively limits a former employee’s ability to work in the same general capacity for a new company as they did with Google anywhere in the world at any point in time.
Furthermore, employees are lectured against making any comments both to outsiders and to others within the company, including in-house lawyers, regarding whether there are problems with any of the products put out by Google or whether Google may have broken any laws or otherwise committed legal wrongdoings. An employee who alerts the proper authorities to a company’s commission of a legal violation is known as a whistleblower. Even though Google may intend for this particular measure to prevent employees from inadvertently sharing company secrets related to the development of a project or business transactions by discussing issues with products or contracts, the discouragement of their employees from mentioning violations of the law to anyone, even in-house counsel, is likely to be seen as so overbearing that it effectively blocks employees from ever alerting the authorities about major legal violations that Google may commit without the knowledge of the general public.
What Does the Future Hold for Google?
Once Google was notified of the plaintiff’s intent to file a PAGA lawsuit, the company did make an amendment in September 2016 to one of Google’s policies in an effort to permit employees to comment on their wages, hours, and working conditions to government officials. However, Google did not make any changes to the Confidentiality Agreement, nor has it changed any of its main policies that prohibit employees from discussing anything about the company to people outside the company. Additionally, Google has failed to educate its employees of the new amendment, meaning that Google employees are unaware of the amendment and are likely under the impression that no amendment has been made and that they still face the threat of being fired if they dare speak out about their working conditions or their income.
No employee should ever feel that they cannot discuss basic parts of their job, such as working conditions and wages, that are unrelated to anything that a company can legally protect through confidentiality measures. Nor should an employee ever have the impression that they do not have the right to be a whistleblower. If you think that your company is trying to unnecessarily silence you through illegal and overly burdensome confidentiality policies, then you need to contact an employment lawyer immediately.
Authored by Kristen Johnson, LegalMatch Legal Writer