The Biggest Firestorm in Google’s History? The Name of a Pie

April 14, 2015

Google is the second-most valuable company in the world, thanks largely to its culture of freedom and transparency.

But that freedom and transparency doesn’t come without problems. Like the time in 2008 when an employee wrote an email to everyone in the company threatening to quit in protest, spawning the biggest firestorm in the tech giant’s history.

And just think, it was all over the name of a pie.

The story

As a perk, Google serves its employees free gourmet lunches. One day in 2008, a chef made a chocolate crème pie with goji berries from Tibet.

His name for his creation? "Free Tibet goji berry chocolate crème pie." Pretty literal, really, as it was a free chocolate crème pie with goji berries from Tibet.

Harmless, right? Well, not quite.

Upon seeing the name, an employee wrote an email saying, “if there is no good answer or action from the company (regarding the pie) I will quite in protest.” This email was forwarded on a company-wide list, which generated 100 emails within an hour and over 1,000 in a day.

Every once in awhile, Google has had email threads on that list of over 100, Laszlo Bock, SVP of People Operations at Google, wrote in his new book, Work Rules!. But never has one exceeded 100 so fast, and never had one hit 1,000, until the pie dispute.

Why so much controversy?

As many of you know, Tibet’s struggle for liberation is a charged issue, particularly in mainland China where Google has offices. That email tapped into that controversy, and soon Googlers across the world were locked in a heated argument about international politics.

Some argued serving “free Tibet… pie” was the equivalent of serving “free Northern Ireland cookies” or “the war of northern aggression hotcakes.” Others argued that all this controversy was over a silly pie, while others just called for civility because the argument was getting out-of-hand.

After seeing the thread, the chef’s boss suspended him for three days, but that only caused more debate. Bock eventually rescinded the suspension, which helped hamper the barrage, and things slowly went back to normal.

The business lesson

The root cause of the pie incident was Google’s emphasis on freedom and transparency. To debate politics on a company-wide thread shows Googlers certainly feel free in their workplace, and the fact that this debate was allowed to rage on shows the company’s commitment to transparency.

The easy thing would have been to either shut down the thread early on or discontinue them in the future. But Google did neither.

“I realized that these kinds of enormous, brawling, wildly inconclusive debates are part of a culture of transparency,” Bock wrote. “People knew they were free to have the conversation. And as painful as it is to live through, these debates are signs that you’re getting something right.”

Pretty powerful stuff. Yes, the email probably was a distraction and brought in something – employees’ political views – that should never be brought into the office. It made some people angry and a lot of people uncomfortable.

But Google didn’t change everything just because of one thousand-long email thread. They understood there are consequences to freedom, but those consequences are far outweighed by the benefits, and trivial compared to the consequences of a cultural of control.

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*Image by Ben Grantham

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