Google CEO Sundar Pichai Would Rather Talk About Bard Than Unhappy Employees

The Google CEO's approval rate has declined in recent years as employee criticisms mount.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai in a black suit.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai has faced growing criticism for his handling of Google’s massive layoff. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Google’s massive layoffs are taking a toll on Sundar Pichai’s reputation among his employees, who have sent letters in recent months urging their CEO to do better. Pichai has remained largely silent, at least publicly, about the criticism and demands from employees. Instead, he seems to prefer focusing on new product offerings, especially Bard, Google’s artificial intelligence chatbot designed to challenge OpenAI’s ChatGPT.

Since Google announced in January plans to let go 12,000 employees, the largest cut in the company’s history, Pichai has been at the center of criticism for his handling of the downsizing. More than 1,500 Google employees have signed a March 19 open letter to Pichai, urging him to “not be evil”—a phrase used in Google’s corporate code of conduct—during the ongoing layoffs.

Google workers have been at odds with senior management before, often over the company’s service for governments. Employees have spoken out against Google’s effort in 2018 to build a censored search engine for China and a $1.2 billion contract last year to provide cloud service to the Israeli government. As CEO of Google and its parent, Alphabet, Pichai has borne the brunt of employee discontent.

The letter lists five public commitments the employees want from Pichai, including a hiring freeze until layoffs are over, granting priority rehire to former employees, avoiding discrimination, respecting scheduled leaves and protecting employees from countries with active conflicts, like Ukraine and Russia.

On multiple occasions before the open letter was drafted, a group of former Google workers who were laid off while on maternity and medical leave wrote letters to Pichai and Fiona Cicconi, Google’s chief people officer, demanding the company pay for the remaining time of their approved leave. They never received a response, CNBC reported.

Pichai hasn’t publicly addressed any of these demands. Google didn’t say whether Pichai has responded to these letters internally. In an emailed statement, the company said its severance packages compare favorably with other companies, including for those fired while on leave

Pichai is focusing on Bard, a ChatGPT competitor

Alarmed by the success of ChatGPT, Pichai in late December reportedly declared a “code red” within the company to develop a competing product as soon as possible.

A month later, Google announced Bard, a ChatGPT-like text generator, one day before Microsoft unveiled a GPT-enhanced Bing. Bard is powered by Google’s own language model LaMDA, which has been in the works since 2021. In a company blog post on Feb. 6, Pichai said Google will soon incorporate Bard into its own search engine.

However, Pichai immediately was criticized after Bard gave a factually incorrect answer to a question during a demonstration at its launch event. Critics, including some Google employees, said Pichai rushed to introduce the product before it was ready. Some tech commentators called for Pichai’s resignation.

Bard was initially only available to a small group of testers. Google opened up access to the public on March 21, although there is still a waiting list. This time, Pichai advised users to manage their expectations. In an internal email on March 21, Pichai said Bard won’t be perfect at first.

“As more people start to use Bard and test its capabilities, they’ll surprise us. Things will go wrong,” Pichai wrote in an email to staffers, which soon became public. “We will learn from it and keep iterating and improving.”

Pichai’s declining approval rate

Pichai, has been the CEO of Google since 2015 and Alphabet since 2019. His approval rate among employees has dropped every year since then.

In his first year as Google chief in 2016, Pichai was ranked as the seventh best CEO in the U.S. on Glassdoor’s annual Top CEOs list, which is compiled based on employee review. Pichai had a 96 percent approval rate that year.

In 2017, his rank fell to No. 17. It further dropped to No.45 in 2018 and No.46 in 2019. In the most recent list of 2021, Pichai ranked No. 90 with an approval rate of 90 percent. (Glassdoor didn’t publish a list for 2020.) In contrast, Google was consistently in the top 10 on Glassdoor’s “Best Places to Work” list in those years.

Despite the controversies around Pichai, Alphabet shares have reacted positively to both January’s layoffs and the launch of Bard. Its stock price is up 18 percent this year after losing 30 percent in 2022. Google CEO Sundar Pichai Would Rather Talk About Bard Than Unhappy Employees