Anna Geiduschek usually has no time to respond to recruitment emails that arrive in her inbox each week. But Geiduschek, a software engineer at Dropbox, recently made a point of turning down an Amazon Web Services recruiter by citing her personal opposition to Amazon’s role in hosting another tech company’s service used by U.S. government agents to target illegal immigrants for detention and deportation.
"I'm sure you're working on some very exciting technical problems over there at AWS [Amazon Web Services], however, I would never consider working for Amazon until you drop your AWS contract with Palantir," Geiduschek wrote in her email response, which she shared on Twitter.
Tech companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have faced growing internal unrest from employees who raise ethical concerns about how the companies deploy their high-tech services and products. Tech workers have signed open letters opposing Google’s Project Maven contract with the U.S. military, Microsoft’s contract for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Amazon’s sale of facial recognition technology to law enforcement.
That chorus of dissent is now growing louder as outside engineers voice their concerns to recruiters working for those tech companies.
The protests of tech workers have proven persuasive because Silicon Valley firms compete fiercely to recruit and retain relatively scarce engineering talent. For example, Google’s leadership sought to reassure employees by declaring it would not renew its Pentagon contract and by issuing a set of ethical principles for future uses of Google-developed technologies.
By the same logic, engineers who are approached by tech recruiters also have leverage. “I might be a one-off example, but it could be different if Amazon gets a lot of people emailing them saying, ‘Hey, I won’t work for you because of this,’” Geiduschek says.
Jackie Luo, a software engineer at Square, took a similar stance with a tech recruiter who sought to interest her in a career with Google. The recruiter happened to contact Luo when she was reading about Google’s plans to re-enter the Chinese market with a censored version of the company’s Internet search engine.
"I won't be considering a job at Google now or in the future unless it seriously rethinks the way it does business by putting human rights before profit,” Luo told the recruiter in a response email that she shared on Twitter. She described the China search engine plans as a “huge dealbreaker for me,” and expressed other concerns about Google’s Pentagon contract and the company’s work environment for “women, underrepresented minorities, trans people, etc.”
Individual engineers such as Luo and Geiduschek seem to be responding to tech recruiters through their own initiative rather than as part of any larger movement. Meanwhile, some tech employees have joined organized efforts, such as the #TechWontBuildIt movement spearheaded by the labor advocacy group Tech Workers Coalition.
It’s likely no accident that women, underrepresented minorities, LGBTQ people, and other underrepresented groups in the tech industry are among the more prominent voices speaking out through recruitment channels, Luo says. And their opinions may carry even more weight because of Silicon Valley’s eagerness to recruit more diverse workforces, Geiduschek says.
Raising ethical concerns to recruiters isn’t a new tactic for tech employees. "Many, many women pushed back at Uber at the peak of its transgressions," Luo says. She pointed to the example of Kelly Ellis, a software engineer at MailChimp, who described having "rejected Uber so hard in so many recruiting emails" in a tweet sent out in August 2017.
Crucially, Luo and Geiduschek both took firm but polite stances when responding to the tech recruiters who reached out to them.
“The recruiter has little to no control over what government contracts their company is accepting or how their company handles sexual harassment,” Luo says. “But, still, they’re the ones who can communicate to the company when they’re struggling to find candidates because of what’s happening elsewhere in the company, and then the company can then reassess if they need to make a change.”
Geiduschek even sees recruiter emails as opportunities to enlighten current employees about their own companies’ policies. That may have happened when she conveyed her objection to AWS providing cloud hosting for Palantir, the tech company that runs a case management system for ICE agents to build deportation cases against illegal immigrants.
The Amazon recruiter on the other end responded with apparent astonishment: "Wow I honestly had no idea. I will run this up to leadership. Usually they are really proactive about these kinds of things. Thank you for the reply. Really appreciate your candidness."
Editor's note: This story was updated on 10 August 2018 to clarify the nature of deportation cases brought by U.S. government agents.