Company bosses draw a red line on office activists

Lisa Marshall found herself at odds with her union’s position on the war in Gaza.
Lisa Marshall found herself at odds with her union’s position on the war in Gaza.


Google’s dismissal of protesting workers is the latest example of employers pushing back against pressure tactics by staff.

Business leaders are sending a warning to staff: Dissent that disrupts the workplace won’t be tolerated.

Google’s decision to fire 28 workers involved in sit-in protests against the tech giant’s cloud-computing contract with the Israeli government is the most recent and starkest example of companies’ stricter stance. Rifts with employees have spilled into public view at National Public Radio, the New York Times and other workplaces. Bosses are losing patience with staff eager to be the conscience of their companies, especially as employees pressure them on charged issues such as politics and the war in Gaza, executives, board members and C-suite advisers say.

The moves are a correction to the last several years, when corporate leaders often brooked dissent and encouraged staff to voice their personal convictions. On issues such as immigration policy and racial justice, many chief executives publicly expressed corporate solidarity. Google, in particular, has long prided itself on an open work culture that fostered internal debate, much like a college campus.

It is an open question as to what rights workers really have to speak out on the job. “None of this is settled," said Genevieve Lakier, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

Workers in the private sector aren’t protected by the First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech, and “there is still a lot of uncertainty about how much free expression by workers is consistent with the operations of the workplace," she said.

Numerous workers reported being fired from companies after writing contentious social-media posts about the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel or the war in Gaza. At Google, leaders said the protesting workers violated company policy by taking over office spaces and disrupting work. While preserving the company’s open culture is important, Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote to staff afterward, “we also need to be more focused in how we work, collaborate, discuss and even disagree."

An unexpected firing

Hasan Ibraheem, a Google software engineer who was arrested and then fired after taking part in the protest at the company’s New York office, said the firings didn’t square with his image of Google when he was hired less than two years ago.

It was “the big company that was still fun and vibrant. You were allowed to express yourself," said Ibraheem, 23, who had been active in pro-Palestinian demonstrations before joining Google.

Though he knew of a few co-workers who had quit because of their opposition to the $1.2 billion Israeli contract that Google shares with Amazon, called Project Nimbus, he said he opted to stay so he could protest the contract from within.

Google had been responsive to employee concerns about government work before. In 2018, it decided not to renew a separate Pentagon contract after that work became the subject of intense internal debate. The company also pledged not to make artificial-intelligence technology for military weapons and adopted a set of AI principles to guide its work.

“I wasn’t expecting that my labor would be going toward aiding a genocide, and that if I spoke up against that I would be instantly fired," Ibraheem said. Google said that, unlike the contract it canceled in 2018, the Project Nimbus contract isn’t aimed at being used for weapons or intelligence work. Some employees say they are worried the company is still aiding Israel’s war efforts.

Google’s vice president of global security, Chris Rackow, told employees last week that the activists’ behavior “made co-workers feel threatened." A Google spokesman said numerous staffers complained the protesters disrupted their work.

Other companies have found themselves in clashes with dissenting employees. This month, NPR suspended a senior editor—who subsequently resigned—after he published a critique of the radio network’s news coverage in another media outlet. The New York Times, where divisions over its Gaza war coverage have roiled the newsroom, investigated whether staffers leaked confidential materials to another publication. It closed the probe last week without any conclusive finding.

Starbucks sued the union representing around 410 of its more than 9,700 U.S. stores after local affiliates of Starbucks Workers United posted pro-Palestinian tweets and reshared an image of a bulldozer breaking through the fence encircling Gaza. The coffee chain alleged the union’s use of the Starbucks name and branding led people to misattribute such sentiment to the company. (The two sides have since said they are working toward resolving the litigation.)

Shifting pressures

Until recently, many company leaders viewed speaking out as less risky than appearing unresponsive to calls for social action—such as in the aftermath of George Floyd’s 2020 murder, when businesses voiced support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

But issues that have boiled over in workplaces since then—from state abortion bans to the war in Gaza—don’t lend themselves to simple pronouncements of solidarity or town halls where employees can share their personal experiences.

The perils of being ensnared in partisan politics is changing the calculus of how responsive companies should be to any issue that doesn’t directly affect business, some executives and corporate advisers say.

Many of them point to Disney’s now-resolved legal battle with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as a cautionary tale. The fight stemmed from Disney’s move in 2022 to publicly oppose Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, as it faced pressure from LGBTQ employees and advocacy groups. Last year’s damaging boycott of Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Bud Light—after the brand’s marketing promotion with a transgender influencer—has also made companies leery of moves that risk landing them in a culture war, they say.

Corporate leaders “are very concerned about public backlash, especially boards of directors," said Jonathan Bernstein, founder and chairman of Bernstein Crisis Management, which advises companies on corporate communications and reputation management.

Ignoring workplace dissent isn’t an option either, he said. Several clients, he said, are wrestling with squabbling staff on email and Slack over issues ranging from the war in Gaza to U.S. politics.

Marissa Andrada, former chief people officer at Chipotle Mexican Grill and now a board director at Krispy Kreme, said she was surprised how swiftly Google moved to fire the protesting workers. In those situations, she said, “it is often better to take a pause, make sure all the facts are understood."

Andrada recalls the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, when she was still at Chipotle. Among staff, there were varying views on the ruling, and “employees were asking what we stood for," she said.

Chipotle’s health plan covered travel costs in other instances where workers’ medical treatment required out-of-state care. It would therefore do the same, if necessary, for abortion care, Chipotle said in a memo to its women’s employee resource group, which had raised the question.

“We didn’t make up a new rule or put out a public statement," she said. “We looked at what was consistent with our existing policy and values."

No way to avoid offense

Acting on employee demands risks offending workers with opposing views. Lisa Marshall, a housing attorney with a nonprofit law firm, woke up one day this year to discover that her union had passed a resolution condemning Israel’s attacks on Gaza.

Marshall, an Orthodox Jew, said she saw the resolution as a direct affront to her Jewish identity.

Leaving the union wasn’t an option in Massachusetts, where she works and lives. So she filed a request to the UAW, the parent of Marshall’s union, to be a religious objector, which allows her to withhold her union dues and pay them to a nonprofit instead. She now routes her dues to the Brandeis Center, a Jewish civil rights group that advised her during this process. Her union didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Marshall said she appreciates the union’s role in fighting for pay, job security, retirement plans and benefits, but believes the resolution was an overstep, and painful for Jewish members.

Google’s CEO made a similar point in explaining why the company had quickly fired its protesting employees.

“This is a business, and not a place to act in a way that disrupts co-workers or makes them feel unsafe, to attempt to use the company as a personal platform." Pichai said in his email to staff.

“This is too important a moment as a company for us to be distracted," he added.

Write to Vanessa Fuhrmans at, Miles Kruppa at and Lauren Weber at

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