By Aaron Pressman and Adam Lashinsky
May 17, 2019

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More than 12 years ago I wrote a feature about the workplace culture at Google, which debuted that year at No. 1 on Fortune’s annual 100 Best Companies to Work For list. It was a whimsical piece that tried to pull back the curtain on the zany yet cush environment for the mostly young workforce. The headline and sub-headline from 2007 are deliciously worth pondering today: “Search and Enjoy: The people are brilliant. The perks are epic. But can Google’s founders build a culture that doesn’t depend on the stock price?”

Fortune’s Beth Kowitt has delivered a full-throated response to that generation-ago (by Silicon Valley standards) question: Not completely. Noting Google’s idealistic founding and early years, Kowitt added up the multiple recent clashes between Google and its own employees. Then she asks a question of her own: What happens when an empowered tech workforce rebels?

What makes this story so compelling is that Google absolutely delivered on a work environment that encouraged employee feedback, from weekly “TGIF” all-hands meetings to internal bulletin-board mechanisms. The problem hasn’t been so much empowering employees to speak out as what management does when they do. In many instances, management has done exactly what its workers have wanted, especially when they’ve pushed what the rest of the country would recognize as a left-of-center political agenda. (Examples: firing a self-identified conservative champion of men’s rights, discontinuing work on a Pentagon project, disbanding an A.I. ethics council because it included the Heritage Foundation president.) In other instances, Google has made its own activists feel less than welcome. (As I have pointed out before, I am a Google spouse.)

Credit Google with acknowledging its growing pains. “You can’t go through that kind of growth without the culture needing to evolve,” Jen Fitzpatrick, a Google senior vice-president, told Kowitt.

Google is in the middle of a journey that only a few companies ever travel. It begins by being a startlingly successful upstart, then a potential role model for other companies, and finally just another massive company trying to make a buck and facing questions from all sides.

As for Google’s culture not depending on its stock price, well, we still don’t know the answer to that.

Adam Lashinsky
@adamlashinsky
adam_lashinsky@fortune.com

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